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Graduation day in the 'scariest place on Earth'

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Shadowed by a nuclear test, guarded by armed soldiers and with a two-star general handing out prizes, Kim Min-Jung's elementary school graduation was a moment to savour.

"I knew that despite the event, our graduation would take place as planned, and I'm happy I got so many presents and awards," Kim told reporters after the ceremony Friday.

The "event" was a 6-7 kiloton nuclear test by North Korea three days before, which triggered global outrage but failed to scupper graduation day at Kim's school, despite its unique location slap in the middle of the world's last Cold War frontier.

Daeseongdong village and its elementary school lie inside the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea -- once described by former US president Bill Clinton as "the scariest place on Earth".

Four kilometres (2.5 miles) wide and 248 kilometres long, the DMZ is a largely depopulated no-man's land of heavily-fortified fences, bristling with the landmines and listening posts of two nations that technically remain at war.

Daeseongdong ("Freedom Village") is one of only two villages inside the DMZ, which extends two kilometres each side of the actual borderline.

North Korea has its own showcase village inside the zone, but on the other side, which flies the communist state's emblem on what is claimed as the world's tallest supported flagpole.

The 200 or so villagers living in Daeseongdong benefit from various incentives, including exemption from military service and tax-free income from their rice and ginseng farms.

But life in the village involves numerous restrictions, including a midnight curfew following an evening roll call.

Education-wise, there is only the elementary school and Kim and the five children who graduated with him on Friday must leave the village to continue their studies.

Dressed in traditional costumes, that clashed with the army fatigues of the ever-present soldiers, the six pupils were plied with gifts and awards from military and civilian organisations that attend the graduation ceremony each year.

Journalists were allowed in for the ceremony, but told they could not ask questions related to Tuesday's nuclear test.

nys-gh/mtp

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130215/graduation-day-the-scariest-place-earth