The soldiers manning the checkpoint may be baby-faced, but their helmets, armbands and automatic rifles tell us they mean business. Despite their youth, they project an air of solemn authority, and after a couple of questions and a peek into the boot of the car they wave us through. Our light mood is replaced with a telling silence. After all, we’re rolling into one of the world’s most notorious flashpoints: Korea’s last outpost of the Cold War, known as the DMZ.
It’s a late-winter morning, with a biting wind blowing in from the East Sea. A smothering of clouds broods overhead and I can taste kelp in the air. As we leave the car and climb the stairs towards the Goseong Unification Observatory, I’m afforded my first ocean view: the beach below is rugged and empty, with roiling surf foaming on a wide stretch of rock-strewn sand.
“The waters here are very rich,” remarks my guide, Jeon Seong-soon. Originally from South Korea’s North Jeolla Province, she retired to Gangwon with her husband to soak up the fresh air and natural living that this northerly region offers in spades. “This area is well known for octopus,” she continues, gesturing towards the watery expanse. “They are harvested by male divers known as meoguri, several of whom are defectors from the north.”
This is the first time she has mentioned North Korea, the other half of this ancient peninsula and a country much maligned in the West. The chance to gaze into this mysterious land is, of course, why I’ve come to the DMZ, but what I’m initially struck by is its serenity. I thought such a place would induce anxiety, but the combination of mountains, pine trees, sea and sky manages to soothe. Who knew the most fortified border on earth could feel so peaceful?
We enter the main building, a gleaming, multilevel affair, and emerge onto an outdoor observation deck. As the wind picks up, I pull my wool cap down over my ears and commandeer one of the coin-operated telescopes, pouring over the desolate stretch of coastline in front of us and pausing at a lump of land extending into the sea, connected to the shore by only a narrow spit of sand.
“That’s the border,” remarks Mrs Jeon. As I look on, my lens stops at a rocky rise looming in the distance. “And that’s North Korea.” Mrs Jeon goes on to inform me that this little mountain is also home to a sizable bunker, and while I do my best to discern a trace of military presence, I can make out only weather-worn forms of ancient stone.
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