Late-winter dawn in Seoul brings a sharp chill. But only 40 miles north, in a tight valley that loops and finger-hooks along the Imjin River, it is positively frigid.
GIs on military exercise trek through a brown goulash of freezing mud and snow. Tank columns jerk along a foggy ridge, ready to cross the river whose bank was "cleared" at 2 a.m. of a mock enemy by Apache helicopters and night-vision troops.
Iowa-born Sgt. Joseph Oakes has been up for 12 hours. He nudges a pontoon bridge into position from a river craft whose V-8 engines give it a shallow draft. "It will be 30 hours before I get any sleep," he says as the first arrivals in a series of Bradley vehicles and M-48 tanks lumber up. "Korea is cold, man.
"Will there be a war? I don't know. I hope not."
For 50 years, this patch of rugged terrain near the DMZ has been a choice training ground for US and South Korean forces. Now, a nuclear standoff with North Korea brings an edge to the exercises. The US last month sent 12 B-1 and 12 B-52 bombers to Guam, and the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier is tying up in Japan.
Across the border Monday, North Korean media accused the US of planning a tactical nuclear attack, stated again that US military exercises are evidence of coming US military aggression, and launched a short-range test missile into the Sea of Japan, the second in as many weeks. At this point, Kim Jong Il's provocations and threats are coming every few days as the North Korean leader attempts to force direct talks with the United States.
US brass who plan these drills do not name North Korea as the enemy. This is a showdown between the Republic of Blue Land and the Republic of Orange Land. Officially, GIs must be alert and concentrate on their jobs, and ignore speculation about the North. Still, everyone here knows of the nuclear crisis. "We are always ready, but there is more focus in recent weeks, with the international situation," says Col. Tony Ierardi.
Many GIs, some of whom are posted only for a year, get more of a sense of the crisis from e-mails by friends or phone calls from parents. "My mom keeps phoning and asking, 'What is going on over there?' I just say, 'I don't know,' " offers James Roy, a wheel-well mechanic from a small town near Yosemite, Calif., who has been sleeping on the ground, or trying to, for five days. "It's true. Most of us don't talk about war. We talk about the weekend, where we are going, how we plan to chill, stuff like that."
"The biggest thing is being ready," says Sgt. Stephen Willey, a boat mate of Sergeant Oakes. "We don't think it's war. But you never know."
Mountain ranges along the Korean peninsula run north to south, and this valley is one of two major invasion routes. In August 1951, the Chinese crossed the Imjin here at night, starting a two-week offensive on their way to Seoul. It was a see-saw battle, and the British 1st Gloucester Regiment was trapped here, says David Bolger, the 2nd Division chief of staff. "The British held, but it was pretty tough."
When the Korean War ended in 1953, US and South Korean forces set up some 100 "installations" between the armistice line and Seoul, in a "fixed position" defense. But today's exercises are all about "mobility ops" - practicing the kind of high-speed coordinated warfare the US military conducts now.
Tanks, personnel carriers, Blackhawk and Apache helicopters, and infantry train with engineering crews (or "slice elements") that shift from company to company on a moment's notice, flying in pontoons, supporting mine-clearing tanks, and opening a path for the agile Bradley vehicles that carry both firepower and soldiers. US officers work closely with their South Korean counterparts. "It's all about getting from here to there quickly," says one military analyst, speaking of the capability of the 2nd Division.
Commander Gen. John Wood uses a football metaphor to describe training of 2nd Division GIs in Korea. "We are like the middle linebacker," he says, "shifting up and down the demilitarized zone."
The doctrine is called "assured mobility," says Col. Mike Helmick, in charge of the division operations. "I need to assure General Wood he can go where he wants in Korea. "
Some military analysts say that North Korea may have some 20 tunnels coursing under the DMZ. They say it may be North Korean Special-Operations units - at 80,000 men, the largest in the world - that would cause the greatest military challenge, should those forces infiltrate through the tunnels and come up behind the US forces in the event of conflict.
Yet one US Army observer here says that seismic readings show no tunnels under the DMZ; the four tunnels already known and plugged are the only ones in existence. "Our equipment is pretty sensitive. Seismic testing has come a long way," the official says.
The main threat from the North is artillery units along the border so extensive that they can fire more than 300,000 rounds an hour into Seoul and environs. There are two main systems: multiple rocket launchers, and 180 millimeter cannons. A number of foreign-policy experts feel that because Kim Jong Il is essentially holding Seoul hostage with these artillery, a military option is out of the question on the peninsula. Therefore, most military exercises are defensive in nature - though one officer says quietly that the pontoon bridge training this week is "offensive."
For GIs, the object of the exercises, some of which last two weeks, is not just to learn battlefield tactics or the technical side of the mission. Rather the exercises, as with any military training, are designed to help them maintain alertness in extreme conditions.
"We train them to live in the field, in the cold, and help them learn how to forget the misery point as long as possible," says Colonel Ierardi. Some exercises involve live fire. Others are intermilitary events, where a tank company might engage an infantry division.
South Korean soldiers in camouflage, who also tread over the pontoon bridge constructed early this morning, say they get along well with the US forces, for the most part.
"I've experienced the good part and the bad part of US soldiers," says one South Korean soldier. "Mostly I admire them, and think for the safety of our country, it is a bad choice if they leave."
Following a Pentagon review, many soldiers have been talking in recent days about redeployment or withdrawal of US forces - something South Korean forces don't desire. "If the US pulls off this [DMZ] line, a lot of us wonder what is the point of them being here."
US officers say they have no plans to move or redeploy, stressing that this is "a political, not a military question."