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Column: A visit to Observation Post 717 in the DMZ

February 17, 2018

A South Korean soldier, at right, describes the view to guests at Observation Post 717 along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in South Korea. (Dan Archer/Archcomix via AP)

OBSERVATION POST 717, South Korea (AP) — The view into North Korea is spectacular from high above, a wide panorama stretching from craggy islands just off the coast to the mountains in the interior.

There was a lot to be seen on this beautifully clear day, even if the North Koreans themselves were not in a mood to come out and be watched.

We were on a tour of sorts, to a heavily fortified outpost in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the coast of what is commonly known as the Sea of Japan, but called East Sea in Korea. It’s a place not usually open to outsiders, but during the Olympics journalists were invited to get a peek into the front lines of the long-running standoff between North and South Korea.

Just 50 miles south, figure skaters were battling it out for gold at the Olympics and Mikaela Shiffrin was coming up short in the slalom. Somewhat incongruously, North Korean cheerleaders were still in their odd form in Pyeongchang, urging on their country’s few athletes with their highly ritualistic singing and swaying.

On Observation Post 717 there were no games, unless you count the old basketball hoop lying sideways on the ground outside. Not much fun, either, for those who face a daily stare down with the enemy across the border.

There was, however, a great view up a few flights of stairs to the top.

It stretched from the mountains on the left to the sea on the right, where miles of pristine sandy white beaches were strangely empty. In the middle was a North Korean outpost, with two red and blue North Korean flags on top of large flagpoles snapping in the wind.

The rules for this visit were simple, yet strict. No phones, no cameras, no electronics of any kind.

An illustrator for The Associated Press discovered the hard way how seriously they were enforced. As he sketched the view below, a South Korean soldier came over and tore four pages from his book, and a Russian photographer was forced to delete the photos he tried to take.

Earlier, another soldier had come on the bus to carefully check ID’s against a preapproved list.

“Just to prove you’re not a spy,” said Lee Seong Jeong, a South Korean woman who was our guide for the day.

Lee herself lives just a few miles from Panmunjom, the village where the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement that put a long pause into the Korean War was signed. Her parents run a restaurant serving soldiers and tourists who visit the more well-known area near the other edge of the 160 mile demilitarized zone that cuts across Korea in a 2.5-mile wide swatch.

In contrast, tourists aren’t welcome at Observation Post 717, though about 15 miles south of the outpost a souvenir shop sells DMZ Special Blend liquor. It contains 25 percent alcohol, and comes with its own slogan of “Ecology, Peace (and) Cooperation.”

On this day a South Korean officer stood before large windows looking out over North Korea and pointing a laser at objects on a model of the area below. Another soldier manned a high definition TV camera, zooming it in on various North Korean targets of interest.

Straight across was a North Korean bunker built in the side of a rocky stretch of mountains. Down below was a small lake where North Korean soldiers can sometimes be seen fishing.

And to the left on a mountain ridge were opposing guard stations on high outcrops looking directly at each other only a quarter of a mile away.

Everywhere on both sides, we were told, were land mines for anyone who dared venture too far.

Railroad tracks were also visible from a unification railway that once carried South Koran tourists to Mt. Kumgang, a stunningly beautiful mountain area in the North. South Korea built a resort in the mountains in the early 2000′s which brought some much needed tourist revenue to the North, but travel to the area was banned and the railroad shuttered after North Korean guards shot a South Korean woman to death for venturing too far from the resort in 2008.

The tension is still very real, despite the charm offensive that brought 22 North Korean athletes and several hundred others to the Olympics. If we needed a reminder it came from the loudspeakers on the South Korean side that were loudly playing K-Pop favorites outside Observation Post 717 to drown out the propaganda broadcasts from the North.

Still, even the slightest of thaws because of the Olympics gives some hope to Lee that one day families on both sides of the fence will be reunited and Korea will once again be one.

“In my opinion unification must come,” she said. “If not in my generation, then in the next generation. But I think it might happen in my generation.”

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for the Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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