Tensions rise at the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea

North Korea nullified Thursday all agreements with South Korea designed to prevent an escalation of war along the DMZ between the North and South. Our reporter visits the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – the 2.5 mile wide buffer zone – amid the rising tensions.

Lee Jin-man/AP
A North Korean soldier observes the South at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas since the Korean War, north of Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday.

The South Korean army lieutenant had an unusual reminder for tourists Thursday after a briefing by tour guides on the proper way to behave at this historic “truce village” perched between North and South Korea.

“Tension is high,” says Lt. Han, not revealing his last name, as he faces an audience dominated by Japanese and Chinese tourists. “Please do as you're told and do not stand in front of soldiers.”

This is the Korean peninsula's Demilitarized Zone, a 2.5-mile-wide buffer between Korea's two opposing armies. It's the world's most heavily fortified border, which was created as part of the Korean war armistice of 1953. It's a potential flashpoint of military confrontation, secret tunnels, propaganda one-upmanship, tourist buses, and – when both sides are willing to talk – of negotiations.

Today, two months after the sinking of a South Korean warship, tensions are at the highest level in recent memory. And they're about to go a notch higher.

Our group of tourists files into a single blue-roofed one-room structure that straddles the line between the two Koreas. They walk around a burnished desk across which officers from both sides occasionally confront each other. But as the tourists return to their bus, waiting in front of Freedom House, the imposing stone and concrete edifice built 1998 in hopes of holding reunions there between families separated by the Korean War, they get a surprise.

The promised visit to “the bridge of no return” – where prisoners had walked across the North-South line after their release under the armistice – is suddenly canceled.

“We just got word,” says Private Shin Dong-hee, a young South Korean soldier. “It is too dangerous. We do not yet know what the North Koreans will do.”

Indeed, that is the critical question throughout the Korean peninsula.

N. Korea nullifies prior agreements

The heightened security at the DMZ is prompted by North Korea's statements today. North Korea has declared "null and void" all agreements reached between North and South Korea to insure against escalation of hostilities here along the 150-mile long DMZ and in the disputed waters of the West or Yellow Sea.

The language of the North Korean announcement seems unequivocal.

The command of the Korean People’s Army, says this is a response to “the reckless moves” of South Korean “maniacs, sycophants, and quislings.” South Korea’s defense ministry last week released a report charging that a North Korean submarine had fired the torpedo that sank a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 sailors. And South Korea is now pushing for more economic sanctions against the North.

The North Korean announcement sets off alarm bells here by coming perilously close to threatening activities within the Joint Security Area where North Korean, South Korean, and American soldiers are on duty. Most of the time, they perform largely ceremonial roles manning the line between the two Koreas. But over the past 50 years, there have been more than a dozen North Korea incursions across the DMZ, shots have been fired, and at least four tunnels built under the DMZ by the North – one is now a tourist attaction.

The North Korean command does not mention this truce village in today's announcement, but says it may stop South Koreans from entering the economic zone next to Panmunjom at Kaesong, where more than 100 South Korean companies employ 40,000 North Koreans producing light industrial products.

The North Korean military also threatens “physical strikes” against South Korean ships entering North Korean waters – a reminder that clashes can break out any time in the West Sea near where the corvette Cheonan went down. North Korea for years has challenged the Northern Limit Line set by the UN Command after the Korean War below which North Korean vessels are banned.

And North Korea renews a threat to fire at South Korean loudspeaker facilities along the demilitarized zone if they resume broadcasting propaganda as they did before South Korea’s late President Kim Dae-jung initiated the Sunshine policy of reconciliation with the North in the late 1990s. South Korean officials say they’ll be ready to resume the loudspeaker barrage in two weeks, posing a challenge that North Korea may find difficult to ignore.

Eerie silence

But on Thursday, an eerie silence hangs over this truce village. Tour leaders warn tourists about where and when to take photographs, reminding them that South Korean officers will confiscate cameras and notebooks if they break the rules.

At an observation post atop a wooded hill called Dorasan, vehicles are seen moving along highway toward the Kaesong complex carrying South Korean technicians and managers who run the factories.

“We do have special things right now,” says South Korean Sergeant Kwon Seok-ho, making certain that visitors do not step over a painted line beyond which photography of the view is banned. Still, he adds, “the transportation corridor is open.

US-led tour

A retired American army officer, Stephen M. Tharp, leading foreign visitors on a special tour sponsored by the US military command in Seoul, is relaxed about the possible threats.

“We’re not going to do tours if it’s too dangerous,” says Mr. Tharp, who has spent most of his career both in the Army and in civilian life observing and advising on North Korean issues. As for what to expect in coming days and weeks, he says, “You don’t get a breakthrough until you raise tensions real high.”

Until the last week or two, the general view among South Koreans was that American troops here were no longer needed.

The South Koreans say they, not their American ally, would bear the brunt of a North Korean attack. The battalion of 600 soldiers that guards this truce village now includes only 40 American soldiers, a token force that serves as a symbol of the deterrent offered by the U.S.-Korean alliance. The U.S. still has 28,500 troops in Korea, the vanguard well south of here on the approach to Seoul.

'S. Korea was very soft'

A Korean-American tourist who has lived in New Jersey for 30 years recalls the tensions he experienced more than 30 years ago as a Korean Army officer leading a platoon south of the DMZ in mountains on the eastern side of the peninsula.

“Everything will calm down in a few months,” says the businessman, who would only give his surname, Kim. “The first few weeks are the most dangerous. Then things slow down.”

Mr. Kim adds that he was worried enough, however, to have asked the travel agency that put him on the tour if it was safe. The agency assured him it was, at least until South Korea resumes the loudspeaker barrage.

“We expected them to invade in 1975 after the victory of the Communists in Vietnam,” he says. “Probably the soldiers on the DMZ today have the same feelings as we did then.”

Not everyone, though, is optimistic. “Most ordinary people do not feel so tense,” says Paek Soo-jin, a South Korean tour guide, “but I’m scared.” Previously, “We gave everything to North Korea and want to talk,” she says.

South Korea was “very soft," she continues. "Now North Korea wants to start another war.”


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