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North Korea: On the frontline

Step inside the room that lies at the epicentre of a political earthquake

This month, faced with fresh competition, Kim Jong-un dramatically raised the stakes in the ‘Who Is The World’s Craziest President?’ contest. After celebrating the successful launch of a ballistic missile, the North Korean government was likely behind the assassination of the Dear Leader’s less than dear half-brother Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur airport.

This has tightened the already quite taught tensions on the Korean peninsula, and this bizarre room is the epicentre of the political earthquake. Forget Trump’s much talked about Mexican wall, the 38th Parallel – the line that splits North (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) from South (Republic of Korea) – is a proper border. Though the divide itself is marked by an underwhelming fence, it is has a two kilometre demilitarised zone (DMZ) on either side along the 250km border, dotted with two million landmines (there used to be three million).

The one spot where North and South Koreans can stare at each other in the face – and they do, for hours each day – is the Joint Security Area (JSA), an island in the DMZ administered by the UN where the two sides can come together to have peace talks, which they rarely do. This room sits right on the border, half in the DPRK and half in the ROK.

This scene of Apocalypse-maybe-coming-soon is one of the regions most popular tourist attractions. A couple of hundred visitors are bussed in each day, led by clean cut US soldiers with movie star charisma who speak of eagerly anticipating President Trump’s visit to the base, check nobody is planning to defect and encourage photo taking, except of “the big grey weather tower”, pronounced in a way that conveys that is definitely not a weather tower.

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To go on the tour you need to do two things: sign a waiver acknowledging “the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action” and adhere to a dress code – dress to impress so the rest of the world looks smart. It becomes clear that tourists are only brought in because it annoys the North Koreans. On the day The Big Issue visits, it is the first time in a week when both sides have not been blasting propaganda recordings at each other – songs celebrating the Dear Leader versus K-Pop.

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While missiles are being tested and people assassinated, on the frontline the battle is being waged with music and snap happy tourists. We live in strange times.

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