February 2015. A visit to the Korean demilitarised zone is a fascinating experience for anyone with even a passing interest in the region’s tumultuous history. The DMZ is basically a U.S. occupied buffer zone between North and South Korea. I was able to get a behind-the-scenes look with an organised tour, arranged through the USO (United Service Organisation) at Camp Kim Military Base in Seoul. Departing by bus, we were ushered into the territory through a series of security checkpoints before being dropped off at a theater where a short film awaited. Signing a declaration that stated the USO would not be held responsible for any deaths during the tour (yes, really), we were then whisked away to the DMZ’s key points of interest. Our first stop was the restored Dorasan Train Station, which once connected the two countries. Now it merely carries tourists back and fourth from Seoul with four daily services. The station lies 205km from Pyongyang.
February 2015. In late 2007 the North and South struck up an agreement to allow freight trains through to the North’s grim-looking Kaesong Industrial Park. But the deal lasted just a matter of months before the North threw a tantrum over supposed “confrontational Southern behaviour”. They then closed the border indefinitely. For me there was an eerie feeling to Dorasan Station and its long empty platform. The dude pictured above was prowling around down the far end and shooting me a few unwelcoming glares. Probably because I was pointing a camera at him. So I got my photo as quickly and discreetly as I could and scuttled off like the coward I am.
February 2015. Located in the so-called peace village of Panmunjon, the JSA (joint security area) is the only portion of the DMZ where North and South Korean forces come face to face. The Southern guards can be seen in the forefront of the picture, standing between the blue conference rooms used for diplomatic engagements and United Nations negotiations. The guy in the back of the picture is a North Korean guard, known locally as Bob. The tour took us into one of the conference rooms where, if you move over to the back wall, it’s possible to officially step into North Korea.
February 2015. The tour provides plenty of riveting views across North Korea, the best of which come from atop Dora Observatory and its row of regimented binoculars. From here you can zoom in on the fake North Korean village of Kijong-dong, which was first built in the 1950s in an attempt to lure South Koreans over across the border. It was a pretty miserable effort, the windowless buildings having been clearly uninhabited since their construction.
February 2015. Our DMZ guide that day was a colourful young American who introduced himself as Private Alfatino. With a wry humour and seemingly ingrained weariness he showed us around, giving plenty of insight into what he described as his ‘‘tedious’’ JSA lifestyle. At the end of the tour, outside the JSA Visitor Centre, he spoke candidly of his six-month DMZ stretch feeling like a life sentence and was very much looking forward to doing some “meaningful” work in The Middle East. One highlight of his stay came when a buddy obtained a copy of Seth Rogen’s controversial political comedy The Interview, which they watched on a projector screen in one of the mess halls.
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