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The 2 Koreas Get a Land Link

With the opening of a 23-mile road through the demilitarized zone, says an official from the South, 'we are easing tensions' on peninsula.

February 15, 2003|Barbara Demick and Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writers

ONJUNGRI, North Korea — With the snip of a huge ribbon and the rev of bus gears, the two Koreas made history Friday with the official opening of a land route across their heavily fortified demilitarized zone.

"This is a great historical moment," Kim Hyung Ki, South Korea's vice unification minister, told several hundred celebrities, reporters and politicians at a ceremony shadowed by anxiety over North Korea's decision to restart its nuclear program. "We are easing tensions. This shows that the nuclear issue should be peacefully resolved."

The sealed 38th parallel has long been a symbol of a divided Korea -- a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which saw northern soldiers surge south and capture two-thirds of the peninsula before being forced back in the wake of a surprise landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur at the port of Inchon.

Cho Bae Sook, a South Korean lawmaker, said the open road promises improved communication between the two Koreas and sends a message to the United States.

"We want them to be patient," she said. "We don't want to have war" on the peninsula.

The new 23-mile road runs north along the east coast of the peninsula to Mt. Kumgang, which is revered by Koreans. Until this week, tourists had to take a cruise ship on a circuitous journey into international waters to visit the mountain resort, a diversion that took four hours and added hundreds of dollars to the cost of the trip.

The tour buses that traversed the road Friday were festooned with garlands of flowers and made for an incongruous sight as they cruised past a forbidding tangle of concertina wire, concrete tank barriers and triangular signs warning of land mines.

The convoy moved slowly, in keeping with the DMZ's speed limit of 6 mph. The 21 buses followed a winding two-lane paved road that has long been used by South Korean military patrols, before turning off onto the narrow dirt road newly built for the visitors.

Before long, they passed three parallel barbed-wire fences -- the military demarcation line that separates South from North. The dense vegetation of the South Korean side, a pristine wilderness untouched for half a century, gave way to a landscape as barren as a desert. On the North Korean side, there were only boulders and stumps, all the trees having long since been chopped down for firewood. Stone-faced guards in pea-green jackets stared unwelcomingly at the visitors.

But the North Koreans later staged an elaborate welcome for the tourists at Onjungri, the village where the Kumgang tourist complex is located, complete with balloons, bands, majorettes and long speeches. It appeared that the North Koreans were determined not to let a nuclear crisis spoil their party.

"The successful result of the overland route to Mt. Kumgang shows that our nation can do anything despite the interference of foreign powers," said Bang Jung Sam, the North Korean head of the Kumgang tourism association, alluding to the United States.

"This is a tourism event," Bang said. "Don't bring politics into it."

Despite the North's best efforts, the festivities were tinged by rising fears of a confrontation over nuclear weapons.

"They are very nervous about the situation. They will not show it," said Kim Yoon Kyu, president of the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Asan, which is running the tours.

Kim Young Oak, a South Korean scholar, drew a parallel with another famous Cold War barrier.

"When the Berlin Wall collapsed, millions of people celebrated," he said. "Today, we're celebrating."

An estimated 550,000 people have visited the Kumgang area since Hyundai Asan started offering tours in November 1998. The company hopes that the land route and lower price -- roughly half the $500 cost of a cruise -- will sharply boost the number of visitors, to 300,000 this year from 100,000 in 2002.

"I'd like to go now that there's a road," said Kim Soon Ja, a 35-year-old Seoul homemaker. "The cost makes a big difference."

Hyundai plans to add a ski resort and golf course to the complex, amid talk that private cars might eventually be allowed.

"I'm so happy," said a 29-year-old North Korean guide at Mt. Kumgang. "You can drive to North Korea. My heart is overcome."

South Korea has been hit in recent weeks by revelations that Hyundai helped channel nearly $200 million to North Korea to secure the historic North-South summit in June 2000 that ultimately led to a Nobel Peace Prize for South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

The president acknowledged Friday that the government knew about the payments and apologized to the nation, an admission apparently timed to coincide with the road opening. The disclosure also appeared designed to ensure that the incoming administration of Roh Moo Hyun starts off with a cleaner slate.

Political analysts said it remains to be seen whether the damage-control strategy will work. But in a nation where corruption is deeply rooted, some South Koreans seemed to take news of the payments in stride.

"They should have been more open about what they were doing," said Han Myong Ho, a 44-year-old food industry worker who lives in Seoul. "Still, everything has a price, and I don't think it was a waste of money."

For older South Koreans, the open road was something of a dream.

"I never gave up hope that such a day would come," said Park Ie Sang, a 77-year-old North Korean-born locksmith living in Seoul who fled south in January 1951.

"I just hope someday North Koreans will come south along this same road."

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