DEMILITARIZED ZONE, Korea – Daesungdong Elementary School’s graduation ceremony Friday was like most commencement exercises — with a few exceptions.
There were the speeches, the proud parents, the visibly uncomfortable graduates — and heavily armed soldiers manning the gates along roads leading to the school.
Daesungdong Elementary is the only school in the only village within the south side of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, just 300 yards from the border of North Korea — a country still technically at war with the students’ homeland. Just days ago, the North carried out an underground nuclear weapons test.
Talk about going to school in a rough neighborhood.
You might think it would be a parent’s worst nightmare to send a child to school here, but Daesungdong Elementary has to turn children away each year, thanks to a byproduct of its unique location — U.S. soldiers stationed nearby who volunteer each week to teach English for free.
Many South Korean parents hire tutors or send their children to expensive after-school academies to learn English.
There were about a dozen representatives of the U.S. military on hand Friday as six graduates from the school’s student body of about 30 were honored upon their completion of elementary school.
The ceremony featured a slide show, student performances, the presentation of gifts to the graduates and only passing acknowledgement that the children had completed their coursework at a school within sight of one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders.
Oh Hyo-jin, 13, one of the graduates, said her friends outside of school admire her “because they think it would be very scary for them to go to a school so close to North Korea.”
However, she dismissed that suggestion with a shrug, saying, “It’s not a matter of being brave; it’s just a matter of going to school.”
She said students were told Tuesday about North Korea’s nuclear test, but assured by teachers, “we had nothing to worry about because this is the safest place if anything happened.”
Daesungdong, also known as “Freedom Village,” was formed under the terms of the 1953 armistice that ended Korean War hostilities. It allowed both Koreas to maintain a village inside the DMZ.
The village on the North’s side, Kijong-dong, is uninhabited and best known for the massive North Korean flag that flies over its empty buildings.
Daesungdong is home to more than 200 residents, but not many school-age children. So, most of the students at the elementary school are bused into the DMZ through armed checkpoints.
While students are prohibited from venturing outside the schoolyard gate and occasionally see North Korean soldiers patrolling along the border, they, along with their parents, have traditionally expressed little fear about the school’s location.
Some have suggested Daesungdong Elementary might be safer than your average school, given all the security around it.
Staff writer Ashley Rowland contributed to this report.