The heavily-fortified border between North and South Korea was opened to ordinary tourists Friday for the first time in half a century. It was one small positive sign amid continuing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Hundreds of spectators turned out Friday to watch 498 South Korean tourists cross the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea. It was the first time the infamous strip of land has been opened to civilian traffic since the Korean War of 1950 through 1953.
Red, yellow, blue and white balloons were released into the sky as more than 20 tourist buses entered the four kilometer-wide strip of no-man's-land, headed for the North Korean Diamond Mountain resort.
Friday's crossing of the DMZ is part of a series of economic and cultural projects agreed upon in 2000, at a historic summit between the leaders of the two Koreas.
It is one small sign of hope on the otherwise tense Korean Peninsula. Even as the tour buses were setting out, negotiators for the two nations ended talks on economic cooperation without any progress. The meeting was reportedly dominated by the current international dispute over North Korea's nuclear ambitions and violations of non-proliferation accords.
Not everyone in South Korea feels tourist traffic is significant, however, at a time when Pyongyang is threatening to develop nuclear weapons, and daring the world to stop it. Chun Hong-chan, a professor of politics at Pusan University, said "I am very much concerned about not only the North Korean threat, but the unbelievable complacency among the South Korean people about the seriousness of North Korean blackmail. Personally I want to stop this kind of appeasement policy toward North Korea. I personally believe the prevention of war should be given the utmost priority in South Korea."
South Korea has continued regular contacts with North Korea on various projects and used the meetings to press Pyongyang to return to its nuclear free status, without success.
Pyongyang continued its defiance of the rest of the world over its alleged weapons program Friday. The North's official news agency rejected the International Atomic Energy Agency's decision to have the U.N. Security Council consider the problem of North Korea's illegal nuclear programs.
The news agency called the decision "interference in its internal affairs," and dismissed the IAEA as "America's lapdog."
The IAEA's governing board on Wednesday declared North Korea in breach of international nuclear safeguards, and turned the matter over to the Security Council, which can impose economic sanctions. Pyongyang said any sanctions would amount to a declaration of war.