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(News Focus) Seoul's proposed DMZ peace park faces tough road ahead
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, May 13 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is examining the possibility of creating an international park inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), but it first needs to improve strained inter-Korean relations before taking the initial step towards realizing this goal, officials and experts said Monday.

   During her recent U.S. visit since taking office in late February, President Park Geun-hye unveiled her vision to build an international park inside the DMZ, saying the last Cold War frontier "must live up to its name -- a zone that strengthens peace, not undermines it."

   The DMZ is a 259-kilometer strip of rugged no-man's land stretching from coast to coast, serving as a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in an armistice agreement instead of a peace treaty. It goes from seashore to seashore, through river valleys and across mountains.

   This natural isolation in the 4-kilometer-wide buffer zone has created an involuntary park that is recognized as one of the most well-preserved temperate habitats in the world and is home to some endangered species.

South Korean soldiers patrol along a military fence near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas. (Yonhap file photo)

Following Park's remark, Seoul's unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, announced a plan to study measures to build the park in conjunction with other related government agencies as part of efforts to allay inter-Korean tension under Park's "trust-building process."

   The ministry also said it will seek cooperation from the United Nations Command (UNC) in pursuing the plan because the DMZ is under jurisdiction of Seoul and the UNC, which supervises the armistice agreement.

   Despite the move, the widespread view is that it will be difficult to accomplish this goal any time soon because of heightened tensions with the communist nation, which has aggressively pursued missile and nuclear programs under young leader Kim Jong-un.

   On Monday, the North's official Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea criticized Park's peace park proposal, saying that it is an "unbearable insult" to the Korean people to invite foreigners to the scar of the peninsula.
"Making flower gardens and drawing foreign visitors to the symbol of hatred is aimed at advertising Korean people's tragedy," its Internet Web site Uriminzokkiri said in a commentary, undermining "the warmonger's absurd proposal."

   Military officials in Seoul say it will be hard to disarm the security-intensive spot, which is heavily surrounded by artillery and quick-reaction forces that are trained to hunt down infiltrators.

   When former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun offered to jointly seek ways to peacefully use the buffer zone in a 2007 inter-Korean summit, then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reportedly remained reluctant and deemed the proposal premature at the time.

   Though generally calm, the DMZ has been the scene of much saber-rattling and several small skirmishes between the two Koreas over the past decades.

   The armistice restricted fortification within the buffer zone, limiting defenses to patrols and observation posts without heavy weapons. But the UNC has developed a layered defense of the DMZ in light of a series of border clashes in the 1960s involving U.S. soldiers.

   Observation posts fortified with sandbags stand at intervals along the trace on either side of the Military Demarcation Line to permit a clear view of the open areas.

   Advocates of reconciliation with Pyongyang welcomed Park's peace initiative, but they stressed that efforts are first needed to resolve the prolonged impasse over the Kaesong Industrial Zone, which has fallen victim to the escalating stand-off in recent months.

   Chung Dong-young, who had served as unification minister in 2004-2005 under President Roh, supported Park's proposal, but he urged the government to first normalize of the suspended industrial park to coax the North to change its behaviors.

   "Building a DMZ park is a good idea, but the Kaesong Industrial Complex should be normalized first because it is closely linked to the North Korean nuclear issue," the senior advisor of the main opposition Democratic Party said on Friday.

   Established in 2004, the most visible symbol of cooperation between two Koreas has been idle since early April when Pyongyang pulled North Korean workers from the complex in an angry response to South Korea-U.S. military drills. After Pyongyang rejected Seoul's talk offer, South Korea in early May pulled out its workers over fears for its citizens' safety, leaving the park empty.