Korea's bizarre cold-war border

The good, the bad, and the ugly in Korea come together at a small series of sheds built here in the 1950s. Known as the "joint security area," and located in a mine-laden rural landscape, it is where North and South Korean forces stand virtually eyeball to eyeball.

The drab sheds, known as T-1, T-2, and T-3, are the heart of Panmunjom - a tiny patch of heavily fortified neutrality on a 155-mile armistice line that separates the Koreas. As the only place where the two sides have day-to-day contact, the area is a bellwether for 50-year-old tensions and a current nuclear crisis.

From their respective sides of the sheds, where talks take place weekly now, guards from the North - older men, hardened elites - leer at younger men from the South [Republic of Korea] who stand with fists clenched, bodies arched forward, in an aggressive posture known as "ROK-ready."

Panmunjom is in no small sense a theater of perceptions, say US military officials here. Both sides watch each other 24 hours a day through binoculars and monitoring cameras, and neither side strays from an elaborate system of behavioral rules. Joint US-ROK troops sit in trucks with the keys in the ignition, ready for action. They say the soldiers from the North provoke them by making slitting motions across their throats. "They really hate us, and they want us to feel that," says Capt. Brian Davis, one of 250 handpicked US soldiers at Camp Bonifas, located nearby.

Because Panmunjom is the "frontline" between the two sides, US strategists say that any serious attack or move by the North would be reflected here. Cameras on the ROK side are monitored on site, at Camp Bonifas, and at central operations in Seoul, to check for such changes. When a North Korean MiG jet crossed the DMZ two weeks ago, one in a series of escalating provocations by North leader Kim Jong Il, it sparked a momentary crisis: Just at that moment, one member of a North Korean team of weed clearers stepped over the armistice line, a major violation. "We were alarmed at first," says Captain Davis, who often sits in the weekly armistice talks. "But we decided it was just a case of inconsequential weed pulling."

The psychological battles here are constant. At an officers meeting in T-3 recently, the North brass refused to sit. They claimed the chairs on their side of the table were inferior. The US officers should not sit until the situation was rectified, they said. The US commander disagreed. So the US sat and the North Koreans continued to stand, refusing to talk. "It got a little tense in there, and we weren't sure where this was going," Davis says. "Finally I think we got them some different chairs."

The incident bespeaks a surreal quality to the entire DMZ in Korea, a two-mile-wide strip of no-man's land. The road here from Seoul, South Korea's capital, winds along the Han River as it spreads into a coastal estuary ringed with craggy hills. The road is lined with barbed wire leading from a high-tech metropolis to the border of a Third-World Stalinist state with nuclear capability. The barbed wire was added after Northern commandos in the mid-90s infiltrated from the river.

To many who travel and live here, the DMZ seems inexplicably strange - slightly creepy, scenically beautiful, a place where Rip Van Winkle could wake up and find the cold war still going strong. If anything, this is more true in recent weeks. With Mr. Kim threatening to end the 50-year-old Korean armistice and restart nuclear facilities, the intercept on March 1 of a US spy plane, and rocket tests, there's a feeling of being jolted into a standoff that no one on the South side wants.

US-South Korean forces here are known as the "trip wire" against a North attack. But given a million-man North Korean Army, soldiers here call themselves "a speed bump." Most US forces are now pulled back from the frontlines so as not to be provocative. Those here say the experience is "intense," according to one GI.

"Ready to fight tonight," the motto of the GIs here, has suddenly taken on a different meaning, though as Secretary of State Colin Powell said two weeks ago in Seoul, "We have no plans to invade ... no armies are on the march ... the US is not on the verge of conflict." Yesterday, US and ROK troops conducted annual joint military exercises in South Korea.

"We are very concerned and worried," says a South Korean guard on the line who gives his name as Shin Moon. "We are watching the other side very closely. We just pray this turns out all right."

Adding to the unusual atmosphere are all the tour buses. The DMZ in recent years has become a commercial enterprise. The stretch of DMZ near Seoul is dotted with museums, full-scale models of the joint security area, deserted train stations, shrines to the dream of eventual unification, and observatories with high-powered telescopes that magnify the world on the other side, including "propaganda village," an empty town in North Korea where speakers blast praises to Kim six hours a day.

Imjingak, a border town built for refugees from the war, is one not-so-subtle tourist haven. Buses lumber past a soaring concrete monument to 17 South Korean diplomats blown up in Rangoon in 1983, an act often thought to be Kim's first major operation. They park next to "freedom bridge," where 13,000 Korean POWs returned home after the war. A few yards away is an amusement park with a Ferris wheel and a carousel in Candyland colors. Giggling Japanese teens wearing platform shoes snap photos and cruise through a souvenir shop peddling binoculars, toy guns, and Arnold Palmer golf towels. Published regulations at the DMZ rule out tank tops, sandals, military garb, shorts, or anything tight fitting. "Untidy hair" is out, so is denim - though if the rules were kept, half the tourists would be turned back.

Less than a mile north lies the "third infiltration tunnel." Visitors don white plastic helmets and descend 1,000 feet below the surface on a cramped tram to a dripping wet cavity bored out by the North and discovered by the South in 1978. The North is thought to have dug 20 tunnels under the DMZ capable of sending thousands of commandos per hour into the South; so far only four tunnels have been found. Upstairs, a new museum at Tunnel 3 features a DMZ panorama with life-sized soldiers peering through nettles on a spy mission, as stuffed deer, otters, and other wildlife surround them.

Indeed, the ecosystem has long been a way to see the bright side of things in the DMZ. The zone is a verdant natural wildlife preserve, a refuge for the rare red-crowned Manchurian cranes. "If the flowers and birds can live in harmony in the DMZ," a multimedia film asks touchingly, "Why can't we?" A Korean War photo essay on the wall just outside the museum theater offers an indirectly more pessimistic answer, with one panel reading, "Finally, after 765 talks between the North and South, an armistice was signed."

DMZ facts


• 151 miles long and two-and-half-miles wide (on average)

• Encompasses about 5 percent of the Korean peninsula.

Troops along DMZ

• 37,000 Americans

• 600,000 South Korean soldiers and 1,024 police who man 114 guard posts

• 1 million North Koreans


• World's tallest flagpole (525 ft.) on North Korean side.

• Two "unification" villages. Inhabitants of the South Korean village, Tao Song Dong, are required to be either original residents or direct descendants of the villagers who resided there at the time the armistice was signed in 1953.


• More than 50 military incidents along DMZ and the coast since 1953 have left 677 dead, including 62 Americans.

Nature Haven

• Undisturbed by people, endangered cranes, deer, tigers, and leopards thrive.

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