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When he's not on duty Sergeant Corbin likes to relax with a quick round of golf. It has to be quick because the only golf course on his base is a single hole, par 3. And it's no place for a stroll in the rough. The fairway is ringed by landmines.

The course is a well-driven tee shot from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the most heavily fortified border in the world. The strip of land - two and a half miles wide - divides the two Koreas.

And Camp Bonifas is the closest military base to North Korea. If war were ever to break out on the Korean peninsula, the camp and its 400 or so United Nations soldiers expect to bear the full brunt of a military assault from a million-strong army.

Sgt. Corbin's rather exclusive 192 yard hole was dubbed "The World's Most Dangerous Golf Course" at the height of the Cold War. The name stuck and the troops stationed there, most of whom are from the US and South Korea, are fiercely proud of it.

"Damn right it's dangerous," smiles Sergeant Corbin, a giant of a man with tightly cropped hair and the kind of square-cut jaw ideal for shaving commercials and the US army. "It's completely surrounded by minefields. If you hook your ball into the rough, I can tell you, you're not getting it back."

A few weeks ago, he even managed to lose a golf club. "I headed down to the course and tried out a brand new club," he laughs. "If I'm honest I might have had a few beers to drink so I wasn't exactly on my finest form. Anyway I took a swing and the club flew straight out of my hand. A $400 golf club lying in the rough and I can't go get it!"

The 155-mile DMZ runs across the Korean peninsula like a gruesome scar, cleaving both a country and a people in two. It has separated family, friends and sworn enemies for over fifty years.

Reams of barbed wire fences, tank traps, artillery guns and minefields line both sides creating a powerful physical obstacle between the two countries. Europe's little lamented Iron Curtain pales in comparison with it East Asian counterpart. And whereas people power ultimately brought down Europe's ideological and physical barriers, the sheer scale of the DMZ makes its removal, at present, a distant thought.

As you leave the relative safety of the heavily fortified UN base (passing under the camp's welcome sign that ominously reads "In Front of Them All") and head deep into the no man's land of the DMZ, it's easy to imagine that Camp Bonifas is the start of some bizarre theme park where danger is the feature attraction and where reality verges on the absurd.

Although only 40km from South Korea's neon-clad capital, Seoul, the DMZ is virtually a world away. Driving out of Seoul's densely packed northern suburbs and onto the so-called "Freedom Highway" (a four lane express way which, incidentally, boasts a number of collapsible concrete tank traps to block an invading army), arriving at the DMZ's first barbed wire checkpoint is a grim reminder of last century's deadly political brinkmanship.

Here in an isolated corner of East Asia the Cold War still rages in a place where only metal and guns can keep two foes apart.

No place better illustrates quite how surreal the DMZ is than the truce village of Panmunjom, home of the UN's Joint Security Area (JSA), where soldiers from both Koreas stand just metres from each other at the only place where North and South meet without fences and razor wire.

A few minutes drive north of Camp Bonifas, Panmunjom is the place where, on the 27th July 1953, the Korean War was finally brought to a close after the death of, according to the more conservative figures, at least 3million people.

It was the first hot war of the Cold War era and despite three years of bitter fighting, neither the Communist armies of North Korea, Russia and their Chinese "volunteers" on one side, nor South Korea and her US-led UN force had ultimately advanced beyond their original starting positions on the 38th parallel. The cease-fire signed on that day was simply an armistice agreement and to this day the two Koreas remain, technically, at war.

Panmunjom is the only place that, when favourable relations permit, the militaries of the two Koreas can meet face to face. In a claustrophobic little egg-shell blue UN hut, placed squarely over the border, the two sides sit across a single wooden table. The microphones that run down that table pedantically constitute the border and the division is relaxed solely for the obligatory peace talk handshakes.

The only other visitors to the hut are the 200,000 or so tourists that come to Panmunjom every year to view this ageing but very real relic of the Cold War. Part of the draw of Panmunjom is to view the bizarre world where two Cold War adversaries still eyeball each other face to face. Dressed in American aviator sunglasses and standing motionless in their trademark tae kwan do stance, South Korean troops silently face down their khaki-clad northern counterparts 24 hours a day.

But the eerie calm that hangs over Panmunjom like a morning mist should not be taken for granted. It is a place constantly held hostage by the fickle relations between Seoul and Pyongyang and when tensions flare up it has become as much a place of death and violence as it is a testament to reconciliation.

Over the past half century, at least 50 Americans, 1,000 South Koreans and many more North Koreans have died in skirmishes along the DMZ. In 1984, in the space of just a few minutes, three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldiers were killed in Panmunjom after a firefight broke out when a Russian diplomat took the opportunity to defect to the south while on a visit. With no actual physical barrier to stop him, the diplomat simply ran past the guards and nearly started world war three.

Eight years earlier, in an incident described in the tourist literatures simply as "The Tree Chopping Incident", two American soldiers were hacked to death by an axe-wielding North Korean as they tried to cut down a poplar tree obscuring their view. One of those men was called Capt. Arthur Bonifas and the camp of the same name was promptly renamed after his death.

Yet despite the incredible gap, both physical and psychological, that exists between the two Korea's, the DMZ may well be the one thing that ultimately brings the Korean people together. Despite its long history of foreign occupation, Korea has been a single nation made up of one ethnicity for over 2,000 years and Koreans on both sides of the border are painfully aware of their recent divide.

"All Koreans, regardless of where they live, dream one day of unification," says Park Chan-bong, a senior official in South Korea's Ministry of Unification, the ministry charged with engaging their neighbours in the north. "I really don't think any politician, both in the north or the south, will have difficulty finding support for unification."

Thanks to the deal signed in February this year whereby North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for aid, the relationship between Seoul and Pyongyang has improved dramatically. Aid shipments from the south to the poverty stricken north have begun again and, last week, 102-year-old Choe Byeong-ok became the first South Korean to be linked up via video with his son in the north after family reunions were suspended last summer following Pyongyang's long range missile tests.

Some newspapers south of the DMZ have even begun suggesting that a peace treaty between the two Koreas might be on the cards, which would formally end five decades of war.

For veteran negotiators like Park Chan-bong, who have seen many a milestone in Korean peace negotiations rebuffed by Pyongyang's often erratic behaviour, unification would be impossible without North Korea giving up it's nuclear ambitions.

"Without de-nuclearisation I can't see any peace treaty insight. But unification within my lifetime? We've taken the first steps so why not?" Perhaps the only downside to unification would be the demie of the "World's Most Dangerous Golf Course". Then again Sgt Corbin could get his club back.

- INDEPENDENT