The crescent of sand is marked only by occasional chunks of driftwood. Lazy waves roll in from the Pacific, washing over rocky outcrops, and the ocean’s salty tang hangs in the air. The beach is utterly pristine – and there’s a good reason why. It lies beyond parallel lines of chain fence topped with barbed wire, is swept at night by powerful spotlights seeking infiltrators, and is backed by another fence bearing triangular signs and a single, ominous word: “mines”.
If anyone visiting the easternmost stretch of the Demilitarised Zone that marks the border between North and South Korea thinks the signs are just for show, a twisted and rusting excavator indicates otherwise. In 2003, the operator of the digger believed he was working in an area that was free of landmines, but the sandy soil here is notorious for shifting and 53 years after the Korean War broke out the driver discovered one by driving over it.
The operator and his colleagues escaped uninjured, but their charred vehicle has been left behind as a warning to the unwary. A foot out of place on the most heavily fortified border in the world could be your last. It’s hardly the most obvious location for a walking holiday.
Nevertheless, the South Korean government is opening a series of hiking trails through the DMZ, the 160-mile ribbon of land that has separated the two feuding Koreas since the 1950-1953 war ended in stalemate. Seoul hopes to build bridges with the regime in Pyongyang by de-escalating the confrontation on the border and sees tourism as one way to achieve that aim.
It is a sound theory, but North Korea remains impossible to read and appears in recent weeks to have been pushing back against the South’s broader efforts to engage. Which is why me and my fellow hikers are accompanied by a healthy contingent of South Korean soldiers on high alert for possible dangers.
Whenever we stop for the guide to point out something of interest, troops to the front, sides and rear adopt what is known as the “ROK Hard” stance – with ROK standing for the Republic of Korea and the soldiers on the balls of their feet, legs braced and arms rigid at their sides. Under the peaks of their slouch hats, their eyes are constantly scanning our surroundings.
To date, the South Korean authorities have opened two hiking routes, at Cheorwon in the centre of the peninsula and Goseong on the east coast, while work is under way to open a third course, at Paju, north-west of Seoul, in the coming months.
And while the DMZ has long been a tourist draw, with private travel companies taking curious visitors to a number of observatories from where they can peer into the North through powerful binoculars or visit invasion tunnels excavated beneath the border by North Korean troops, these hikes break new ground.
Just to reach the starting point for the Cheorwon hike, we pass through a road checkpoint where troops cradle their weapons as our itinerary is checked. Camouflaged trucks are everywhere. Heading further north, the South’s defences, just a few miles from their North Korean counterparts, include military encampments behind high fences and large concrete blocks rigged with explosives to stop enemy tanks.
The hiking path starts with a steep descent down a set of newly built steps, passing a series of bunkers dug into the hillside. Directly in front of me is the ocean, with South Korea to the right and, along the beach in the other direction, the North.
Close up, the double layers of fencing are formidable. Some 12 feet high and interwoven with barbed wire, each section is alarmed. Plastic bottles every few yards contain a repellent to keep the local wildlife away.
Following the fence line - the soldiers make it very clear that we must not touch it - we follow a railway line that crosses the border into the North, but has not seen a train in many years. There are more “mine” warning signs, although a grazing deer does not appear too perturbed.
A firing range can be seen through a series of gates on the beach, with outlines of men in helmets providing the targets and the sea the backdrop. Sandbagged machine-gun positions are at regular intervals. Butterflies and dragonflies flit above our heads and the sea keeps up its constant ebb and flow.
Further on, walkers are encouraged to leave a message on a metal “Tree of Peace” and ring a peace bell, before a final stretch parallel to the beach. It ends at a heavy steel gate festooned with barbed wire that blocks the road as it heads further North. This is precisely 2km from the border and we can go no further.
Peering through the fence, the road disappears into the distance. A signpost is marked “Pyongyang 230km”. There is no sign of movement beyond.
We take a bus up the steep hill to the Geumgangsan Observatory, where the flags of South Korea and the United Nations fly side-by-side and a basketball court has been marked out for the troops stationed here.
Perched on the very top of the last mountain before the peninsula’s rocky spine slopes down to the sea, the observatory has an auditorium with floor-to-ceiling windows that look over the DMZ and into the North. The guide uses a scale model to identify the mountains and lakes on the other side of the border, including the peaks with North Korean military observation posts silhouetted on them.
Outside, I shield my eyes against the sun as I look for movement in the North Korean guard post directly across the valley from us.
One of our military minders stands beside me and I ask him if some of his counterparts are watching us.
He smiles. “Of course,” he says.
How to do it
Several organizations operate tours of the Korean DMZ. Some include visits to the Joint Security Area and the Third Infiltration Tunnel. Be sure to check the itinerary before booking. Among the best is International Cultural Service Club, which is based in the Lotte Hotel in central Seoul and runs a selection of tours on a daily basis. See or call +82 2 755 0073.
The new hiking routes are presently only open to South Korean nationals through a lottery system, although the national tourism organisation anticipates that they will be opened to foreign visitors in the not-too-distant future.