It’s not every day that you get the chance to step into the shoes (or army boots) of a South Korean soldier, especially considering the political climate surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
Just last week I was lucky enough to do just this, stepping straight off a 10 hour flight and into the hands of the 1st Corps who escorted myself and a small group of Australian media students from Incheon Airport to the secluded barracks in Paju. Upon arrival, we were designated beds and army uniforms to be worn for the following two days.
Awoken at 6:30am to the sound of a Korean anthem broadcast throughout the camp, we were promptly ushered to a traditional Korean breakfast and then changed into our uniforms. On day one, we were escorted from the camp to attend our very own paintball (mock) artillery training. This involved practicing with targets and then entering a course with teams.
That afternoon, we visited the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) where we learnt about the situation between North and South Korea. The visit included a guided tour into the 3rd Tunnel, a tunnel dug by North Korea in an attempt to invade Seoul. The tunnel was discovered in 1978, is 1,635 meters long and sits 73 meters underground. This was a surreal experience as we descended into the earth to meet the 200 meters of the tunnel that are open to the public. Damp, cold and dingy with low ceilings, the tunnel is not a place to be if you suffer from claustrophobia! However it was an incredible insight into the aggravations still faced by South Korea.
It was at the border that we learnt how South Korea is so adamant about their mission for peace and unification with North Korea. At the DMZ pleasant music floats across the border into North Korea in an attempt to lure defectors into safety.
Later that afternoon we visited the observatory that is perched only a kilometre away from the border and looks into North Korea. With curious eyes, we buried our faces in telescopes to peer into an alternate universe. Some of us were able to see North Korean farmers tending to their crops alongside fake towns constructed to lure South Koreans across the border. The North Korean flag towers sullenly over the land.
Considering North Korea lies merely 60 kilometres from Seoul, it was surprising to learn that their incessant missile threats do little to ruffle the feathers of their South Korean counterparts. It is uncanny that only 60 kilometres away from this deserted parallel universe lies Seoul, a city so modernistic and full of promise. This exercise was a true wake up call.
That evening, we were left in the company of Korean soldiers who explained their compulsory 21 month duty to serve in the army. Again, this just heightened the realisation of how fortunate we are in Australia to have the choice of whether of not we serve as opposed to conscription.
The second day was filled with physical challenges. We followed our morning routine and were then brought to one of the training fields where we participated in a ‘boot camp’. This included monkey bars, chin ups and pulling and carrying tyres. I was thanking my lucky stars that my religious F45 training had prepared me for this! Some of the group then had the opportunity to try rappelling (abseiling) from a 14 meter high platform. This exercise was followed by an incredible Taekwondo display.
Our time with the Korean Army was concluded with a lunch with the General of the 1st Corps who presented us with our very own medals.
My experience with the Korean Army was unforgettable and truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. I am so fortunate to have been on this unique trip thanks to the Korean Australian Community Support Foundation and strongly encourage future media students to apply for this scholarship!