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South Korea Offers A Kinder, Gentler DMZ

The Korean demilitarized zone is one of the most forbidding places on earth. North Korean artillery positions stare across the border at South Korean and U.S. forces. The potential exists at any given moment to rekindle the cold war conflict of the 1950s. Now, however, some South Korean tourism officials are seeking to rebrand the DMZ as a place of peace and natural beauty. VOA's Kurt Achin has more.

Recently, U.S. folk icon Judy Collins sang at a music festival in South Korea. Dozens of South Korean soldiers were in the audience. They were too young to recall the 1960s antiwar anthems that made Collins famous.

The concert was part of South Korea's "Flower Power Peace Festival." It took place in the southern portion of the Korean demilitarized zone, or DMZ, the tense border area between North and South Korea established by a 1953 armistice. .

Official's in South Korea's Gangwon province hosted the festival. It was the first step in a campaign to persuade international tourists to visit the DMZ.

Ham Kwang Bok is a television journalist who has spent his career studying the demilitarized zone. He is also a consultant on the DMZ program.

In a documentary he produced, Ham says the DMZ is not abandoned, as most of the world thinks. Many small villages are located in the southern half of the zone.

He says residents lead simple lives as farmers in an unpolluted environment, under the watch of South Korean soldiers, "Most people view the DMZ as just a scary place. However, it's also a historic place - a place where people can reflect on why human beings go to war. It is also a place where the natural ecosystem has remained untouched and beautiful."

Before the concert, the flower power musicians experienced the DMZ the way South Korean officials are planning to offer it to tourists. They relaxed at a riverside hotel where whitewater rafting is offered. They had a briefing on the history of the Korean war and a chance to peer into North Korea, with its many military observation posts.

Gangwon province, like Korea, is divided. It exists in both North and South Korea. Governor Kim Jin-sun has bigger ideas for Gangwon than tourism. He hopes Gangwon can play a role in unifying the two Koreas.

Governor Kim Jin-Sun says, "Gangwon has a bigger portion of the DMZ than any other province in Korea. I hope Gangwon will be the foundation stone for unification. We want to send a message of peace to North Korea, and the world."

South Korea's Gangwon officials plan to build a DMZ museum on what they are calling a "peace plaza." They say they will sponsor an international peace award, and invite leaders and scholars to the zone for an annual peace conference.