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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...

North Korean Border Guard - Watching Me Watching Them

North Korean Border Guard - Watching Me Watching Them

Year: 2013, Month: December

North Korea > Demilitarised Zone > Panmunjeom

This 'Photo of the Month' shows a North Korean Border Guard watching me through a pair of binoculars as I visit the so-called 'Demilitarised Zone' along the border between North and South Korea. Its an ironic term, as I saw more military personel there than anywhere else during my time in Korea! The border-guard is standing with his back to the imposing North Korean headquarters building that faces its South Korean equivalent across the the open space centred by the huts containing the tables used for peace talks. These tables straddle the actual north-south border, and are the only place where you can walk across the border into North Korea without the chance of getting shot. Note the three other remote-controlled cameras and binoculars that are also watching the visitors to the South Korean side of the line. Everything they do is monitored and recorded. Tension is high all along the border, and any visitor to the area is strictly briefed as to what is classed as acceptable visitor-behaviour. No interaction is allowed across the border. There is even a strictly enforced dress code - break it and you will be forbidden entry into the border zone. The chance of violence is high, and shooting can and will break out if things go wrong. Exhibitions remind one of the incident where two US soldiers were hacked to death with machetes by North Korean troops as they tried to chop down a tree that was obstructing the view from one of their watchtowers.

Despite the danger, or perhaps because of it, a visit to the Demilitarised Zone is a popular trip for many visitors to South Korea. Located just 70 kilimetres from Seoul, the day trip is often booked up for days or even weeks in advance, so early booking with the one agency authorised to run the tours, Koridoor Tours, is highly recommended. What you will actually get to see depends to a large extent on the current political climate between the two countries, but generally there should be a chance to cross the electrical fences, the tank-traps and the minefields to visit various lookout points between the two countries, the ill-named 'Friendship Bridge' where prisoners and spies are exchanged, and the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of four tunnels built by the North Koreans that have been discovered since 1974, each one a potential secret invasion point into the South.

On a technical note, I should mention that this photo was shot with an equivalent 300mm lens, across a distance of some 100 metres. It was rather a foggy morning, so the final image needed a big increase in contrast processing to bring it up to an acceptable standard.

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