Recently things have grown dramatically worse. Confronted with U.S. intelligence, the North Korean government last fall suggested that it was secretly enriching uranium to produce nuclear weapons. Early this year it withdrew from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and moved to reactivate a plutonium-reprocessing facility, also to produce weapons material. And then in April, during talks with U.S. officials in Beijing, North Korea asserted that it already possessed nuclear weapons. Did these developments alarm the troops? "Not really," shrugs an American officer stationed just outside the DMZ. "We can't ratchet up the security any higher than it already is."
Just getting to the DMZ is a challenge. To join the South Korean pre-dawn patrol, I had to pass through several military checkpoints. One checkpoint guards an entrance to the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ), a high-security belt three to twelve miles (five to nineteen kilometers) wide that borders the length of the Demilitarized Zone. Another checkpoint guards the DMZ itself, right outside Camp Bonifas, one of the westernmost bases along the front line. The 600 South Korean and American troops stationed there provide protection to government officials, military officers, and other guests who come to Panmunjom, a neutral meeting place inside the DMZ. The troops, known as the United Nations Command Security Battalion, also serve as a thin first line of defense against a North Korean attack. "Some call us a speed bump," Capt. Brian Davis, my escort, says matter-of-factly. "But if an invasion happens, we'll defend the DMZ and evacuate noncombatants."
Cleared to enter the DMZ and join the patrol, I climb into a Humvee, the bulky, all-terrain vehicle of the U.S. military. As we rumble northward through the dark with the headlights off, Captain Davis hands me a pair of $3,600 electronic night-vision goggles, standard issue for the forward troops.
In the eerie green glow of the goggles, I see the DMZ fence loom up like a jungle wall—a ten-foot (three-meter) tall chain-link barrier with a canopy of coiled razor wire. A rock-hard embankment, erected to stop onrushing tanks, edges the fence on the other side. Beyond that the ground is seeded with mines. Watchtowers crop up every hundred yards (ninety meters) or so. Except for the areas where steep terrain makes man-made obstacles unnecessary, this bristly fence walls the peninsula into two irreconcilable halves.
We drive through a gate in the fence, crossing into the DMZ, and soon we sight the platoon as it prepares to set out on patrol. I quickly apply camouflage paint to my face, take a place in the soldiers' line, and begin walking. An hour into the patrol the sky begins to lighten, causing the soldiers to crouch down and switch off their goggles.
It is a vulnerable time, these moments dividing night from day, and the soldiers wait in their defensive posture for a couple of minutes until their eyes readjust. We are within sight of the tightly clustered farmhouses in the hamlet of Daeseong-dong, the only South Korean settlement allowed to exist inside the DMZ. No lights shine in the windows. Daeseong-dong's 225 residents live under a strict curfew: off the streets by eleven, confined until dawn.
"Look, there's the enemy," a soldier in front of me says, motioning his head toward a squat concrete guard tower rising up across the MDL less than 50 yards (45 meters) from us. North Korean soldiers in brown uniforms press against its windows, squinting through binoculars and firing off photographs as if we're some kind of wildlife attraction.
"It's OK; we want them to see us," mutters Captain Davis. "These patrols say to North Korea: 'We're here, we're armed, and we're not afraid of you.'"
In the early light we can make out Kijongdong, North Korea's only DMZ village, an orderly collection of buildings fronted by a flagpole 52 stories high, the tallest in the world. A strong, cold wind, compliments of Siberia, barely manages to ripple the huge 600-pound (270-kilogram) red, white, and blue North Korean flag. Soldier of Fortune magazine, I had been told, will pay big money for a piece of that flag.