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DMZ tourist businesses are hit by the outbreaks

Feb 21,2020
Discontent is mounting among residents of northern Gyeonggi, whose livelihoods remain at risk due to a prolonged suspension of tours to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) owing to African swine fever (ASF) and the recent coronavirus outbreak.

On Oct. 2, the government order a temporary halt to DMZ tours in Paju and Yeoncheon counties as a result of the suspected spread of African swine fever by wild boars in the heavily-fortified inter-Korean border.

The fever, which originated in China in Aug. 2018, led to the culling of tens of thousands of pigs and quarantines. The threat of ASF, which is usually fatal to pigs though not to humans, remains present in the area, with the Environment Ministry confirming Monday that ten more infected boars were caught in Paju and Hwacheon, Gangwon.

Since 130 days have already passed since tourism was suspended, the recent coronavirus outbreak suggests the measure is likely to remain in place for an even longer period and inflict further difficulties on the local economy.

Beseeching the government to lift the ban, or take steps to guarantee their livelihoods, residents of Paju and Yeoncheon have held regular rallies directed at the government on the Unification Bridge, a bridge over the Imjin River that marks the beginning of the civilian control zone just below the DMZ.

Paju’s city government also continues to enforce strict quarantine measures with regard to ASF, recently installing a three-kilometer fence separating areas designated for tourism with zones deemed under risk of contamination.

A total of 39 hunters have been hired to catch wild pigs in five separate hunts per week, so that the animals can be tested for the disease by the Health Ministry. If results are promising, local governments plan to file for a resumption of tours to the region.

The coronavirus outbreak and the resulting decrease in Chinese visitors, however, have dampened hopes that the area will experience an influx of tourists even if the government ends the suspension.

One popular DMZ-related tourist destination in Paju is known as the “third tunnel of aggression,” one of four infiltration tunnels built by North Korea under the inter-Korean border following the Korean War.

Around 300,000 foreigners visited the tunnel from January to September last year, of which around half were Chinese.

Yeoncheon too is home to a variety of well-known attractions, like Woldongji, an area home to hundreds of cranes during the winter.

One local government representative in the area said that while quarantine efforts had been strengthened, continued restrictions on tourism posed grave concerns for the local economy.

The central government, however, appears to be determined to maintain a strict quarantine even at the cost of the local economy. In a meeting over the coronavirus outbreak last week, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun stressed that Seoul’s response to ASF may have appeared excessive, but proved effective in stopping its spread.

While there have been 227 reported ASF infections so far, nearly all of them have occurred in areas near the DMZ.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]