Our patrol's in-your-face attitude is completely lost on the village: Its population is zero. The fancy-looking apartment buildings are actually flimsy movie-set facades with painted-on windows. Kijongdong, nicknamed Propaganda Village by U.S. and South Korean troops, was built in the 1950s to lure defectors to cross over to the good life in North Korea. So far there have been no takers.
As the sun cracks the horizon, ragged formations of geese and ducks begin to pass noisily above us and swoop down on the fields. The soldiers don't appear to notice. Grimly, silently, they finish the patrol.
The truce has survived another night in the DMZ, and morning brings a sense of peace. But don't be fooled by the quiet, cautions Maj. Kim Bong Su, a senior Korean officer back at Bonifas. "The North Koreans are the same blood as us, but they are the enemy. They always have a gun pointed at my soldiers' hearts."
My first few hours in the DMZ schools me in how the military views the situation: It's good guys versus bad guys, and everyone's trigger finger is itchy. But just as Propaganda Village is not what it appears, the professed state of war along the DMZ at times also seems weirdly unreal, as if the soldiers are actors at a historical theme park—call it WarLand—in a disconnect especially noticeable when civilian life intrudes. Two hours after the South Korean platoon retires to its barracks, tourist buses stream onto the base, delivering giddy visitors eager to buy pieces of DMZ barbed wire strung on plaques and caps emblazoned with the Bonifas motto, "In Front of Them All."
Farmers from Daeseong-dong drift into the rice fields, ignoring their armed escorts as they climb onto threshing machines to resume the harvest. Only descendants of the village's prewar residents are allowed with their families to live in Daeseong-dong. That's where I meet Kim Ok Ja, standing on the edge of a field in a heavy quilted jacket and muddy rubber boots. She first came to Daeseong-dong as a bride, introduced to her husband through a matchmaker. "When I moved here in 1972, I was scared to live so close to North Korea," Mrs. Kim says, watching her husband maneuver the thresher through a field. "I guess I hadn't realized that this was a front line. But I did know that my husband was a good farmer."
A good and affluent farmer. Because of the relatively large farms (roughly 22 acres or 9 hectares) and because residents don't pay taxes, Daeseongdong's farmers earn an average of $53,600 a year, more than twice what rice growers make elsewhere in South Korea. As an added bonus, village boys are excused from military service, mandatory for other Korean males. There's a catch, of course: the nightly curfew, the armed chaperones, and the sporadic threats posed by North Korean infiltrators.
Inside his one-story farmhouse, with radishes and peppers drying on the floor, Kim Kyong Min tells me how a few years back a North Korean platoon kidnapped his mother and brother while they were collecting acorns. They were held for four nights and then released. "We don't know why the soldiers took them," Mr. Kim says. "Thankfully my mother was treated well."
Mr. Kim, a native of Daeseong-dong, betrays no hard feelings about the abduction. He also shrugs off the barrage of music and sloganeering from speakers in nearby North Korea. "I don't even notice it anymore," he laughs. "Let's see what they're saying." He stares into space, listening to the voice coming through his walls. "It says, 'This is paradise. Come over so you can have a good meal of rice.'" He smiles and pours a cup of tea.
Meanwhile in nearby Seoul, a dense high-rise city of ten million, no one, I wager, is staying home this morning out of fear of the 500 North Korean artillery pieces aimed at the city. In fact, last December South Koreans elected as president Roh Moo-hyun, a former labor lawyer who suggested in his campaign that the United States, with its in-country troops and the Bush Administration's "axis of evil" rhetoric, was pushing the two Koreas further apart. Roh's election signaled that many South Koreans want to make up with what they see as an eccentric, gun-crazy, but essentially harmless relative.
Sixteen miles (26 kilometers) south of the DMZ, inside a bunker with 600 tons (540 metric tons) of concrete overhead, Capt. Bill Brockman of the U.S. Second Infantry Division is doing a good job of scaring his audience about what lies north of the border. Captain Brockman, dressed in battle fatigues, has invited members of the press to the war room at Camp Red Cloud in the town of Uijeongbu, the division headquarters, for a briefing on North Korea. "We are facing a formidable force, one of the largest militaries in the world," Captain Brockman says. "North Korea has an army of over a million soldiers, 70 percent of them deployed within 12 hours of the border. We're within range of 10,000 artillery tubes. That's enough cannon fire to put Stalin and Napoleon to shame."