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pyeongchang 2018

On the way to the Demilitarized Zone, our guide, Shin Maeng Ju, who goes by Sonya, is expounding about compulsory military service.

In South Korea, only males are conscripted and for "a short time" – 21 months.

In the North, both genders must serve. It's a 10-year bid for men, seven for women.

"So don't get with North Korean ladies," Sonya says brightly. "They know how to kill people."

As part of the Olympics outreach, they are running media up to the DMZ for a look-see from a safe distance. The tour along is called "Path to Peace" – an Orwellian formulation if ever there was one.

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During a thaw in relations in the early 2000s, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans travelled this same road on their way to a mountain resort just over the border. It was managed by a subsidiary of the Hyundai car company in the hopes of developing business in new territory.

In 2008, one of those visitors, a 53-year-old woman, wandered into a fenced area, was shot dead by a sentry and that was the end of that.

"Now it is not a very famous area for tourism," Sonya says, grimacing apologetically.

The DMZ is the primary physical manifestation of a war that has been ongoing for nearly seven decades. After most of the shooting stopped, the sides agreed to a new border roughly bisecting the Korean peninsula. Then each army marched back two thousand metres, creating a four-kilometre-wide forbidden area that runs through the land like a macabre nature preserve.

The only point at which the border may be approached is in a spot called the Joint Security Area. A theatrical, close-quarters standoff is maintained there, with soldiers on both sides posturing, and occasionally firing, at one another.

Here in Goseong, there is – rather disappointingly, it must be said – none of that sense of peril.

The only front-and-centre military presence is a checkpoint on the way in to the region. Sonya makes a show of warning us not to take pictures of servicemen or "military installations." And if we are going to take pictures – everyone is snapping out the window at the first sight of fatigues – not to post them anywhere.

Apparently, people have gotten a little loose on Instagram recently and the soldiers noticed. So now all military installation-related materiel must be kept strictly for "personal use."

"I don't know why they care," Sonya says with a sighs, waving above her head. "They have satellites."

Though you have probably never been here, there is likely an image in your mind of what a DMZ is. Walls, spotlights, people with guns looking anxious.

Instead, a DMZ is a barren place defined by great quiet. No soldiers are visible. No one looks anxious. There's a traditional drum band waiting. We're taken to a high point overlooking it, the hopefully named Unification Observatory.

This spot changed hands – North to South – after the 1953 armistice. It's rough, beautiful country. So dry you would not want to drop a match. If you ignored the barbed wire girding the beach – North Korean saboteurs are famously adept swimmers – it could be northern California coastline.

Only a few landmarks are visible over there – the empty road that ferried holiday-goers up the mountain, rail tracks that have only been used for a single test run, and a pair of hilltop observation posts in the distance. These must be the military installations. Most people use them as backgrounds for our selfies.

In the past, this place was notable for its rudimentary propaganda efforts. Loudspeakers blared at all hours from either side, alternately taunting and cajoling. Apparently, the effort was as irritating to stage as it was to endure. Ending the aural assault was one of the few things the two sides have agreed upon in recent years.

A massive tower of those speakers has been removed to the entrance of the nearby DMZ Museum. Now it plays Korean oldies at subdeafening volume.

The museum is a grand, marble affair and, on a Wednesday afternoon, deserted but for us. The gift shop – DMZ personalized dog tags shelved alongside DMZ commemorative coffee mugs – reminds you that, given enough time, every tragedy will be reduced to kitsch.

One of the guys I'm with picks up a figurine – orange jumpsuit, military cap, pot-belly – and wonders if this is meant as a caricature of a North Korean soldier.

The woman behind the counter crosses her arms in front of her in an X. Evidently, some lines still cannot be crossed.

On the bus back, the TV up front is showing live coverage of the arrival of another North Korean delegation. The North sailed a freighter down the other day, exciting a lot of long camera shots of open water.

This time it's the so-called "Army of Beauties" – an all-female cheerleading delegation – rolling grimly through an arrivals lounge in Soviet-style garb. I suppose some people's seven years are more onerous than others. Korean reporters try forlornly to get a word out of any of them. The effect is almost charming.

Two days before it officially begins, the overarching theme of this Olympics is détente.

The world has a generally rudderless feel at the moment – many aspirants to leadership, few real takers. It's a time of retreat from lofty principles, the sort that gave birth to this event. So the idea that two sets of relatives who've been at each other's throats for three generations will put their differences aside for a party has an unusually strong pull. Though it may only be a gesture, it's a gesture that shames the rest of us.

It's not likely to amount to much more than another "Paths to Peace"-type tagline. Amongst South Koreans, the cohort most opposed to reunification is young people – largely because they fear being stuck with the bill. Polling shows those opinions are trending toward disharmony, rather than the other way round.

As we near Pyeongchang, Sonya – done with her scripted spiel and handling the mic like a lounge act between songs – begins to muse on the topic.

"I am for unification," she says, nodding as if she expects one of the foreigners on the bus to disagree. "But my son? He is a teenager. He isn't. All he's interested in is shopping."