The beauty of Korean DMZ belies its reputation as 'scariest place on earth'

Driving north toward the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the first thing you notice is the pounding surf to your right. And the fencing and barbed wire that denies access to the beach.

Wildlife thrives in human-free 2-km wide strip that separates North and South Korea

Scenics suitable for a beach vacation highlight the coastline that hugs the eastern end of the DMZ. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

By: Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

Driving north toward the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the first thing you notice is the pounding surf to your right. And the fencing and barbed wire that denies access to the beach.

The coastline that hugs the eastern end of the DMZ, home to the Goseong Unification Observatory, is drop-dead California-gorgeous complete with majestic waves. What looks like parkland, brown in the dead of winter, stretches west with mountains looming.

Somewhere in the middle, about three kilometres away, is the unseen demarcation line that separates North and South Korea.

It is hard to believe that a symbol of such pain is surrounded by such beauty.

'One of the scariest places on Earth'

But from the observatory balcony, if you can pull your eyes away from the surf and look inland, two buildings catch your eye. Located just 1.5 kilometres apart high on separate hills, South and North Korean observation posts keep a watchful eye on each other.

Behind the eye-popping vista is real-life menace. It is just hidden from view here.

Goseong is a far cry from Panmunjeom to the west where the so-called Joint Security Area is the one area of the DMZ where soldiers from the two nations defiantly stand face to face. President Bill Clinton, on a 1993 visit, called it the "frontier of freedom."

And it is where, last November, a North Korea soldier defected in a death-defying sprint through a hail of bullets in an escape captured on video.

Clinton famously called the DMZ "one of the scariest places on Earth," given the bristling military might that hugs it in full battle readiness. For Koreans it marks the painful schism of their country torn asunder in a bloody war that left millions dead.

The Demilitarized Zone was established on July 27, 1953, a truce line that runs for some 250 kilometres across the Korean Peninsula, separating North and South. Military activity is forbidden on a two-kilometre-wide stretch on either side.

Major tourist attraction

While surrounded by weapons of destruction, the DMZ strip has become a wildlife oasis because of the absence of man. It is also a major tourist attraction.

Approaching the Goseong Observatory after a 90-minute drive north from Pyeongchang, our bus stops at a fortified entrance with armed soldiers. Pulling out a phone to take a picture of the checkpoint is met with a quick rebuke from the otherwise bubbly tour guide, who instructs the phone-holder not to take pictures of anything military.

Nearby a road to the north is blocked off and deserted. Like the railway track that also winds its way into the DMZ, it is no longer needed or used.

Climbing up to the observatory, tourist telescopes are trained north. A lookout spot outside is provided to take pictures. Pieces of colourful fabric adorn every railing, making for a rainbow-like effect.

Near the water, a giant statue of a white Buddha looks north. Hoping for unification, we are told.

A woman dressed as a giant bird, standing on a platform with a helper holding her secure from behind, slowly waves green wings looking south. A symbol of peace.

Down below, visitors coming to the observatory are greeted by an enthusiastic band of drummers in front of some military heirlooms.

Land of darkness

A few kilometres south of the observatory is the DMZ Museum. There is nothing festive about it. Black and white pictures and exhibits tell a bleak story of man's inhumanity.

"Even though the sounds of battle have ceased, the DMZ remains a land of darkness," says one display.

"The DMZ has a tragic history in our nation as it was created at the end of fratricidal war," reads another. "Waged right up to the day of armistice, the war left irremovable scars in the life and death battles to get to high ground."

A display on land mines serves as a chilling reminder of the dangers that still exist around the DMZ.

The second floor of the museum is devoted to the war of words waged between the two countries. Propaganda pamphlets look like flyers for "Beach Blanket Bingo" with women in bikinis beckoning.

The museum gift shop is a hard sell, given the life-and-death story one has just walked through. Figures of North and South Korean soldiers, in their JSA-readiness pose, catch the eye.

While the rhetoric between President Donald Trump and North Korea has heightened in recent months, the 2018 Winter Games have managed to produce some detente.

North Korea has sent a delegation of officials and athletes to the Games in Pyeongchang. The two Koreas are also forming a joint women's hockey team.