Dorasan Train Station, 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. Basically a U.S. occupied buffer zone between North and South Korea, I was able to get a behind-the-scenes look with an organized tour, arranged through the USO (United Service Organisation) at Camp Kim Military Base. Departing from Seoul 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 us on the region’s history. Signing a declaration that basically said the USO could not be held responsible for any deaths during the tour (seriously!), we were then whisked away to the DMZ’s key points of interest. This restored train station, which once connected the two countries, now carries tourists four times a day from Seoul. It lies 205km from Pyongyang.
Dorasan Train Station, February 2015. In late 2007 the North and the 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 “confrontational Southern behaviour”, closing the border indefinitely. For me there was an eerie feeling to the sparkling station and its long empty platform. The dude pictured above was prowling around down the far end, 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, before scuttling away like the coward I am.
Conference Row, The JSA (Joint Security Area) February 2015. Located in the so-called peace village of Panmunjon, the JSA 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 by moving over to the back wall, we were able to officially step into North Korea.
Kijong-dong Village, North Korea, February 2015. The tour provides plenty of riveting views across North Korea, the best coming from atop Dora Observatory and its row of regimented binoculars. The fake North Korean village pictured here was first built in the 1950’s in an attempt to lure South Koreans to defect across the border. It was a pretty miserable effort, the windowless buildings having been clearly uninhabited since their construction.
JSA Visitor Center, February 2015. Our DMZ guide that day was a colourful young American who introduced himself as Private Alfatino. With a wry humor and seemingly ingrained weariness, he showed us around, giving plenty of insight into what he described as a ‘‘tedious’’ JSA lifestyle. He spoke of his six-month stretch there feeling like a life sentence and was very much looking forward to doing some “meaningful” work in The Middle East. The highlight of his stay, he told us, 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.