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Monday, 17 February, 2003, 13:28 GMT
Koreans' historic tourist trip
Tourist buses crossing the heavily armed border
The border landscape is barren but beautiful
The overland border between the two Koreas has opened for the first time since the Korean war ended half a century ago. The BBC's Seoul correspondent Caroline Gluck was among the first to cross.

Fanfare, fireworks and balloons greeted us at a ceremony on the South Korean border, as we prepared to journey through the world's most heavily fortified road border to the North.

This is the first land route for civilians since the end of the Korean war half a century ago.

The pilot journey is due to pave the way for regular overland tourist trips to the North's scenic resort of Mount Kumgang, or Diamond Mountain - which has been developed by the South Korean company Hyundai Asan.

South Korean tourists stand on a cliff bearing a slogan praising former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung
The tourists could not escape the influence of Kim Jong-il's government
Hyundai Asan's president, Kim Yoon-Kyu, described the trip as a historic moment.

"I can compare it to breaking the wall between East and West Germany," he said.

Opening the border was also one of the ways to reduce tensions between North and South Korea, he said.

"I'm going to persuade (the North Koreans) not to have any nuclear power. We need money. Money is better than nuclear power," he said.

Festivities

At the demilitarized zone, there was a razor wire fence on either side, and signs warning that landmines were present.

When we reached the military demarcation line, I could see the first North Korean soldiers watch the convoy - around 20 buses in all.

People are here for tourism. Why are you talking about nuclear issues? I get a headache when people talk about that

Ri Jong-hyok, North Korea's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee
All around me I could see the mountains covered in snow.

It is a barren landscape but quite beautiful. Many believe that if the two Koreas reunify, it should be turned into an ecological zone.

On the North Korean side, a welcoming committee with a female brass band was waiting for us, playing the North Korean song Pangap-sumnida, or Nice to Meet You.

Around 150 North Koreans took part in the ceremony to welcome their southern counterparts.

Ro Chang hyup, a North Korean tourist official, said it was an important step forward in inter-Korean exchanges.

"This is a first step towards unification. It is helping to break the ice and I really welcome our south Korean brothers."

Nuclear issue

But mention the timing of the visit, amid mounting tensions over North Korea's alleged nuclear weapons programme, and you get an angry response.

Ri Jong-hyok, deputy head of the North's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee which handles the North's joint ventures with South Korea, said: "People are here for tourism. Why are you talking about nuclear issues? I get a headache when people talk about that".

North Korean marching band
The tourists were greeted in North Korea by a large marching band
Bang Jong-Sam, head of the Mount Kumgang international tourism company, had a similar message.

"We don't have nuclear weapons. Let the crazy people say whatever they want. All we have to do is to continue tourism," he said.

Since 1988, when tours by cruise boat to Diamond Mountain began, around half a million South Koreans have travelled to the area.

For most, it is their only chance to visit the Communist North. They come to explore the peaks of the fabled mountain - immortalised in songs, paintings and poetry.

Fenced-in resort

But contacts between the two Koreans at the resort is limited.

The Hyundai-built tourism site is fenced in, and North Korean guides are on hand to monitor all movements.

You can catch glimpses of North Korean villages and people travelling on roads only allowed for locals - but most visible are the soldiers.

A group of around 40 soldiers marched by our tour group, singing the praises of their leader, Kim Jong-il.

He's our great commander, they said.

"His love is like the sun, reaching out to every corner."

If the project is aimed at breaking down barriers between the two Koreas, there is clearly a long way to go.

But some ventures, like a locally run restaurant open only to South Koreans, at least help to allow more contact between the two sides.

"I'm sure unification will come," said my waitress.

"It's really good that so many South Koreans are coming here. I'm proud to work here - and I welcome them."

Projects like this and the opening of the cross-border road between the two Koreas are full of symbolism.

But, in practice, it is clear that there is still a long way to go before the two sides can freely mingle.


Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

TALKING POINT
See also:

16 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
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