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What It's Like To Be In South Korea While The North Makes The World Nervous

While strolling through Seoul, it's easy to forget you're less than 60 kilometres from the world's most repressive country.

14/08/2017 1:25 PM AEST | Updated 14/08/2017 1:59 PM AEST
David Barden
"I stood peering into one of the most secretive societies on earth, catching glimpses of farmers ploughing fields, wondering if there was anyone else looking back at me from the other side with an equal level of curiosity."

When I told my Europe-bound friends that I was visiting South Korea this month, their reactions were mixed. Understandably, most of them questioned my sanity, while others joked about me having just secured a front-row seat to a potential nuclear holocaust.

I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't a little bit nervous in the build up to my trip given that, in the weeks beforehand, North Korea had conducted several missile tests -- including one which the hermit state claimed was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead -- and that it had accused the U.S. of "reckless military provocation".

Nevertheless, while my mates were off sailing through Croatia and drinking themselves into oblivion while trekking through Europe, I spent nine-days in South Korea -- two nights of which were spent as an honorary soldier with the army's First Infantry Division in Paju, just a few kilometres from the demilitarised zone (DMZ).

David Barden
While the rest of the world thought WWIII was about to happen, we were rapelling with the army.

As luck would have it, the first notification to pop up on my phone after connecting to the airport's Wi-Fi was news of the North's successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile -- an independence day "gift" from Kim Jong Un to the "American bastards".

Three thoughts came rushing through my tired brain -- the first was an appropriate "WTF?", followed soon after with "great, Donald Trump will probably show them what a real independence day gift is" and the third, oddly (yet in true millennial style), was "thank God I'm getting a SIM card while I'm here, I'll be able to live-tweet the end of the world".

A visit to the Demilitarised Zone

Potential nuclear holocausts and ICBMs aside, I was never going to pass up a visit to the DMZ -- a truly unique place with such an ironic name considering it's one of the most heavily militarised borders on earth.

There's an eeriness when visiting that's hard to describe -- you're standing a stone's throw away from one of the most dangerous places in the world, which coincidentally happens to also be a bustling nature reserve where we're told animals live in peace and harmony.

Whether it's visiting The 3rd Tunnel -- one of four known tunnels believed to have been created by the North to invade the South -- or gazing out across the DMZ from the Dora Observatory, a member of Korea's armed forces was never far away, always on hand to tell you when you could or couldn't snap a photo.

David Barden
The DMZ is odd -- you're in one of the most dangerous places on earth which also happens to be a tourist destination.

As someone who has always been fascinated by the division between the two nations, I would constantly badger our military guides with questions about defectors, reunification and how prepared they were in the event of an attack.

Time and time again though, the answers were exactly the same, as if they had been rehearsed from a closely followed script. We were reassured that the South was ready for reunification and that, ultimately, the ball was in North Korea's court; a rather simple answer to a quite complex issue but, despite how far I pushed, the answer remained the same.

Despite the smog, we were able to peek into North Korea using binoculars at the Dora Observatory. Here, I stood peering into one of the most secretive societies on earth, catching glimpses of farmers ploughing fields, wondering if there was anyone else looking back at me from the other side with an equal level of curiosity.

From the observatory, North Korea's propaganda 'peace village' (Kijong-dong) was also visible -- built in the 1950s to lure defectors from the South, the lights in the empty buildings are on timers to give the impression that there's a thriving community -- but they're not fooling anyone.

Chung Sung-Jun via Getty Images
North Korea's 'Propaganda Village' lies under the shadow of the world's fourth tallest flagpole, carrying a flag weighing 270kg.

Expect to be met with rolling eyes when asking about North Korea

Asking a South Korean if they worry about an attack from the North is almost like asking an Australian if they're worried about the Kiwis invading -- except, in that absurd hypothetical, Australia isn't at war with New Zealand -- whereas the two Koreas technically still are.

Older members of the Korean community -- especially those who remember the war -- remain optimistic about the possibility of reunification, but not everyone is necessarily set on the idea.

Speaking with students at Yonsei University, however, reunification wasn't even something that was given too much thought -- a nice idea perhaps, but something that would most likely remain just that -- an idea.

But young or old, working professional or student -- ask a South Korean if they're worried about an attack from the North and you're almost guaranteed to be met with a not-so-subtle roll of the eyes, followed with a polite "No, not really" reply.

David Barden
Peering across the DMZ into North Korea from the Dora Observatory.

David Barden

After just a few days, it's easy to see why they feel this way -- the South Koreans have lived with their rambunctious northern neighbours for so long that their day-to-day lives are barely impacted by news of the North's latest actions -- while the rest of the world receives breaking news updates from CNN or the BBC and begins their doomsday prep, Koreans are reading about two of their favourite celebrities becoming engaged.

However, despite their seemingly nonchalant attitudes, signs of their preparedness can be seen throughout the city of Seoul and its surroundings.

Indeed, while it's easy to forget that you're less than 60 kilometres from the 38th parallel as you make your way home after a night of drinking in the city's Hongdae district, metro stations with emergency supply kits stationed along the platforms are enough to make a foreign visitor apprehensive -- especially when alerts such as the ones below pop up on your phone and you hear an unrelated, yet completely unnerving, emergency siren in the distance.

DAVID BARDEN
It's great when you get sent an Emergency Alert that you can't translate (After a mini heart attack, I was told this one was just about the heavy rain).

DAVID BARDEN

Picking up a newspaper before breakfast each morning, I was constantly surprised to see nothing about North Korea splashed across the front page. And when North Korea did finally make it to the front page of the newspaper during my visit, it wasn't an update about the latest provocation by Kim Jong Un -- instead, it was one about President Moon Jae-In calling for world leaders at the G-20 summit to put politics aside and provide humanitarian assistance to the rogue state, where two in five are undernourished.

In an overly simplified way, the relationship between the neighbouring nations seems almost like a stock-standard Hollywood romcom -- the one in which the bubbly and accomplished leading-lady thinks she can change her man despite his flawed and troubled past.

Except in this instance, the flaws and troubled past of North Korea have earned it the title of the world's most repressive country, where opponents of the Kim Dynasty are sent to secret prison camps where they face torture and abuse, starvation rations and forced labour.

Returning to Sydney with the same typical smugness that we all get after an overseas trip, I've found that the eye-rolls of the South Koreans have rubbed off on me whenever I hear news about the impending apocalypse.

Instead, while Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump have their war of words, I find myself wondering how the engaged celeb couple have gone in preparing for their upcoming October wedding. May they, and humanity, live happily ever after...

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