Gimpo, South Korea – One thing that most astonishes foreign visitors to South Korea is the geographic proximity of one of Asia’s most prosperous and bustling cities – Seoul – to the world’s most heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone.
Al Jazeera was one of a few foreign media outlets recently given a rare opportunity to visit the 2nd Marine Division in Gimpo, located an hour’s drive from South Korea’s capital which faces arch-rival North Korea across the Han River 1km away.
South Korean marines earned their reputation as “ghost-catching marines” for their invincibility during a number of key amphibious landing operations during the 1950-1953 Korean War.
In a country where all able-bodied men are required to fulfil their two-year long national defence duty in the face of its belligerent northern neighbour, South Koreans must compete hard to become a marine with the physically and mentally difficult training.
The success rate of becoming a marine soared to 4.5 to 1 following the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in the Yellow Sea by the North, an attack that killed two marines and two civilians in November 2010.
We first arrived at an observation post at Aegibong Peak, 43km northwest of Seoul and 1.7km south of the North, where it’s possible to see North Korea’s third-largest city of Kaesong on a clear day, thanks to its relatively high elevation of 154 metres.
A village sits across the river, which was built as North Korea’s “propaganda town”, showing off the communist country’s success and prosperity.
The town was initially uninhabited, but the North relocated 300 residents in the 1980s fearing the South would find out it exists only for propaganda purposes, according to the marines stationed here.
More farming activities have been spotted in recent weeks, with dozens of residents seen plowing the fields in an old-fashioned way by using their hands and ox in the absence of agricultural machines, the marines said.
This Han River Estuary area is tensely monitored around the clock and was designated neutral waters strictly off limits to civilian vessels after the Korean conflict ended in a ceasefire in 1953.
A handful of exceptions include a joint operation between Gimpo City and the marine unit to rescue a North Korean ox that had waded into a massive flood and became stranded on a South Korea-controlled small, uninhabited island in the middle of the river in 1996.
Our next stop was a marine battalion operating amphibious landing vehicles known as KAAVs – Korean Amphibious Assault Vehicles – a variant of the American AAV7 and an asset essential for its core mission of landing on an enemy’s shore.
A KAAV can transport as many as 21 troops and run 480km on land, or stay in the sea up to seven hours.
South Korea’s Marine Corps has about 160 KAAVs in total, the second-largest contingent of such landing vehicles in the world after the United States.
The last image one would have of these tough South Korean guys – serving at the forefront of heightened inter-Korean tensions – would be these “ghost busters” completely disarming themselves at the charm of a K-pop band.
When we visited the marine unit the all-female band La Boum – recently commissioned by the defence ministry as the official cheerleader for “Thank you! Soliders” campaign – was performing to boost morale of these young soldiers.
Most enlisted men serve in often poor and ageing facilities in a remote place, and are not free to leave the base even in weekends. They’re given only a handful of leave opportunities during their two-year mandatory service.
The reaction to this rather new and obscure K-pop band was more than fervent.
The marines sang along, danced to the tunes, and were eager to get a chance to high-five with members of the band.
It was quite obvious that no matter how tough marines are, they are still young, dynamic and energetic.
As we left the fenced-off border unit, it reminded me again of the hard reality that more than one million young members of Korean society – on both sides of the border – are conscripted to fight another potential Korean War.