The Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea is the world's most heavily fortified border, with almost two million troops ready to wage war at a moment's notice. But the DMZ, as it is known, also attracts foreign tourists visiting Seoul, as well as wildlife enthusiasts who come to do research in what has become a lush sanctuary for endangered species.
About 150,000 tourists a year flock to the border area that divides South Korea from its hard-line Stalinist neighbor, North Korea. They make the trek to see one of the last vestiges of the Cold War: the Demilitarized Zone, more popularly known as the DMZ.
Many of the visitors who take the day trip are Western business people visiting Seoul. But Japanese tourists and South Korean families also make the increasingly popular journey. Sometimes, it includes a lunch of cold and chewy North Korean noodles at a restaurant near the DMZ, owned by a North Korean, who defected to the South decades ago.
Seoul resident Lorraine Cairns has just visited the DMZ. She lived in Germany in 1989, the year communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall fell, paving the way for divided Germany's reunification.
"It made me think about the parallels between the divisions in Eastern [and Western] Europe and the existing divisions in Korea," she said. "It is a strange thought that, less than 15 years ago, similar fortifications and obstacles existed in Eastern Europe. Germany was still divided, and the Soviet Union existed. My thoughts were, how much longer was this situation going to exist with a divided Korea?"
Tourists board buses in the South Korean capital for the one-hour ride, 60 kilometers to the north. Along the way, they see sandbagged foxholes and barbed wire fences. South Korean bridges on the route are wired with explosives, ready to be blown immediately if North Korea invades again, as it did to start the Korean War in 1950.
The tourists are taken to observatories, where they view the DMZ and Panmunjom, the United Nations-supervised "truce village" that sits on the border. They also view tunnels below the DMZ that North Korean soldiers dug in the 1970s, at the order of then-President Kim Il Sung, who saw them as a means of attacking the South.
Austin Kim is a tour guide for the Panmunjom Travel Center in Seoul, which takes tourists to the DMZ for day trips costing $60 and up. She says her company employs North Korean defectors, who accompany the tourists to answer questions and offer first-hand descriptions of life in the impoverished and secretive communist state.
"He will tell about the North Korean military situation, how many years that you have to go into the army and who will be drafted," he explained. "One of our defectors was the squadron leader right in the Demilitarized Zone. People really have the chance to talk to a person, who was on the other side of the DMZ, who was a guard."
The Korean Peninsula has been divided, the two sides buffered by the DMZ, for half a century, ever since the Korean War ended with an armed Truce, instead of a peace treaty. The Demilitarized Zone runs 248 kilometers from coast to coast along the 38th Parallel. It is just four kilometers deep.
The area is bristling with land mines, booby traps and heavy weapons. About two million troops stand guard on either side of the DMZ, ready for war. A sense of tension fills the air along the rugged no-man's land.
Ironically, the standoff has created an area where rare wildlife flourishes, co-existing peacefully alongside the soldiers and minefields.
As in countless other nations, industrialization and farming in North and South Korea have robbed wildlife of their traditional habitats. But the forest-covered hills, rice paddies and wetlands of the DMZ provide a haven for several endangered species, including white-naped and red-crowned cranes, Chinese egrets and the Asiatic black bear. Some scientists say there is evidence the refuge also protects Korean subspecies of tiger and leopard that were believed to be near extinction.
Environmentalists consider the area a crucial wildlife habitat. Nial Moores, a spokesman for WBK English, a wetlands conservation group based in Seoul, is calling for the DMZ to be declared a protected biodiversity zone.
"There needs to be, within the whole of the DMZ area, priority areas, which are identified as national parks and nature reserves," he stressed, "with a fairly wide buffer zone protecting that area, with species with larger ranges, such as bear and leopard, which are said to still remain within the DMZ. "
Researchers say the peculiarities that make the DMZ such a rich wildlife zone also create problems, both for humans and animals. Researchers cannot visit the North's half of the DMZ to conduct their studies. And, they say, the heavy fortifications prevent mammals from the South from crossing to mate with their counterparts on the North Korean side.
Still, the researchers and environmentalists fear that, if real peace does ever come to the Korean Peninsula, this precious and irreplaceable habitat, created by war, could be lost forever to peacetime economic development.
Part of VOA's Border Series