But for some of us, the DMZ is also home.
Resolving tensions along the border and creating an environment where two countries can peacefully co-exist is an opportunity within our reach.
I am the Governor of the Gangwon Province — a region cut in half by the 1953 Armistice Agreement. Our northern border marks the boundary between the two Koreas. Perhaps no other region of South Korea is more aware of the dangers of war — or more open to possibilities for peace.
The “Diamond Mountains” — as we refer to the region — have inspired Koreans since ancient times, and for 10 years from 1998, it was a thriving tourist destination that welcomed two million South Koreans. Managed together by North and South, the resort was a precious example of cooperation between the two countries.
But that opportunity is not lost. We’re seeing the start of the return of tourism, with the hope and expectation that it will only increase as we put this pandemic behind us.
So, it is not too early to discuss the idea — counter-intuitive to some — of tourism on the border of North and South Korea.
The benefits to both Koreas — along with the United States and every nation with a stake in the stability of the Peninsula — would be profound. It would promote peace, advance efforts at denuclearization, and increase US and South Korean leverage at the negotiating table.
First, a renewed partnership at Mt. Kumgang could strengthen economic ties between North and South — and reverse the damage for private businesses that have lost $1.3 billion since the site’s closure. Renewed economic relations could also relieve wider tensions on the Peninsula. It is a fine thing to talk together, but even better to have a reason to work together. A partnership at Mt. Kumgang might provide a model for other efforts.
Partners of South Korea, including some US officials, have also voiced concerns and opposed tourist sites like Mt. Kumgang, claiming they undermine United Nations sanctions against the North. However, international law allows revenue from individual tourists to flow into the North, so this should not present an obstacle. Sanctions must and can be safeguarded under any agreement regarding Mt. Kumgang.
For 70 years, South Korea’s alliance with the United States has been a force for peace and prosperity in the region. In that spirit, I urge the US to support reopening Mt. Kumgang.
This year continues to bring rising tensions between North Korea and the international community. In such a moment, small steps like this might seem unimportant. But I believe they are even more important.
The path to peace is sometimes taken in giant leaps. But other times the best way forward is through smaller strides.
It was an American President, John F. Kennedy, who said: “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.”
Mt. Kumgang can serve as a bridge of diplomacy between North and South Korea. And that bridge, someday, might lead to lasting peace.