For the next hour Captain Brockman describes North Korea's bag of tricks: submarines to sneak troops ashore; infiltration tunnels dug under the DMZ, four of which have been discovered so far; sleeper cells of terrorists inside South Korea; and most frightening of all, 700 to 1,000 ballistic missiles that could be armed with biological, chemical, and possibly even nuclear weapons. North Korea's threat could reach even farther, as it readies long-range missiles capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States.
"Our equipment will dominate theirs in a fight," Captain Brockman says, referring to the advanced weaponry of the U.S. forces and South Korea, with its 690,000 soldiers. "The big advantage the enemy has is its size. They could sweep across the border in successive waves."
Few military analysts expect North Korea to launch a full-scale attack; it would be suicidal, given that the counterattack would likely leave the country in ruins. Another Korean war would cost the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in the densely populated and economically vital South Korean territory near the DMZ. It would create millions of refugees, even without the use of weapons of mass destruction.
But even if a new Korean War seems unthinkable, what keeps DMZ troops on high alert is North Korea's greatest menace: its unpredictable leader. Kim Jong Il, a secretive and ruthless dictator, presides like a cult deity over one of the world's most closed societies. Under his leadership the country of 23 million people is collapsing economically: Experts estimate that at least 2.5 million North Koreans have died from hunger during the past decade. Yet North Korea diverts most of its scant resources into its military. Because of its inbred hostility to the outside world and because of Kim Jong Il's fear of an attack by the United States, North Korea will likely continue building its huge arsenal, the only bargaining chip it has left to play.
"We literally have a hair-trigger situation that could erupt at any time," Captain Brockman concludes from inside the bunker. "If the North Korean economy collapses, we fear that the leaders may have a use-it or lose-it mentality with their weaponry. So we wonder: Instead of crumbling quietly like East Germany, would North Korea go for broke?" The question hangs in the air like a radioactive cloud.
Despite a politically charged atmosphere of saber rattling and dire threats—and notwithstanding all the macho talk tossed around like firecrackers at military camps and guard posts—actual confrontations occur almost exclusively within the half-mile (0.8 kilometer) wide enclave of Panmunjom, the DMZ's "truce village" where the opposing sides come to talk.
The most notorious incident here occurred in 1976 when North Korean troops, upset at a tree-cutting operation near one of their guard towers, bludgeoned two American officers to death with ax handles. In 1984 a 30-minute firefight erupted when North Korean soldiers crossed the line to chase after a defector. Across the DMZ as a whole, a half century of skirmishes has claimed the lives of 90 Americans, 394 South Koreans, and at least 889 North Koreans.
Also called the Joint Security Area, Panmunjom is little more than a collection of no-frills conference rooms bisected by the MDL. Here, 50 years ago, military representatives of China, North Korea, and the United Nations finalized the armistice agreement that stopped the Korean War. Today Panmunjom is the one place in the DMZ where delegates from North Korea and the UN Command force meet to discuss military, political, and logistical matters.
You might think, then, that Panmunjom is a decorous, grown-up place. Nope, says Lt. Chris Croninger of the UN Command force. "It's like a schoolyard with two bullies poking each other in the eye."
The rules of combat at Panmunjom emphasize mind games—psyching out the enemy. Each side blasts opposing hillsides with patriotic music and recorded messages. A giant signboard on the North Korean side warns—in Korean characters, which few of the Americans can read—"Yankee Go Home." In one of the conference rooms North Koreans once sawed a few inches off chair legs so that their counterparts at the negotiating table would look small and silly. When North Koreans attended a meeting on another occasion with AK-47 assault rifles obviously hidden under their jackets, an armistice violation, American officers chose not to confront them. Instead the Americans took delight in jacking up the room's heat to equatorial levels just so that they could see their adversaries, unwilling to expose their weapons, squirm and sweat in their heavy clothes.