Lt. Charles Levine, a lanky South Carolinian who quit a rock band in 1998 and joined the Army, escorts me to Panmunjom to observe the mental war games. The occasion is a "body repatriation," involving the remains of four North Koreans who have washed down rivers into the south. Were they fishermen, soldiers, spies? Levine won't say.
We watch from a window as Red Cross officials from the South pass the coffins to soldiers from the North. But I hardly register the actual transfer. I can't take my eyes off the North Korean guards staring at us through the windows, close enough for us to see the red Kim Jong Il pins on their chests. Their hard stares unnerve me. "As a visitor you are not allowed to gesture at, or communicate with, the North Koreans. They want to provoke incidents," Lieutenant Levine has warned me. That doesn't stop him from shooting dark glances of his own. I also notice Major Kim, the South Korean officer I had interviewed, toeing the Military Demarcation Line—which here is a strip of concrete between the buildings—and glaring like a bad dream at the North Korean soldiers, who glare back.
You wonder if they practice this stuff in front of a mirror. In fact, the soldiers at Panmunjom are chosen for their intimidating appearance. The South Koreans here must stand at least five feet eight (1.73 meters), two inches (five centimeters) taller on average than their countrymen; a black belt in martial arts is also required. The Americans assigned to Panmunjom are plucked at airports from the batches of GIs arriving from overseas, selected for height—six feet (1.83 meters) or more is preferred—and for physical bearing. The North Korean sentinels are no slouches either—ramrod straight, steely eyed, and among the best fed people in their famine-threatened country.
Outside the DMZ the big weapons come into play. The mild-sounding Civilian Control Zone, the 590-square-mile (1,500-square-kilometer) restricted area that backs up the DMZ, is bristling with tanks, attack helicopters, rocket launchers, and swarms of soldiers on maneuvers. Inside the CCZ, I sometimes feel as if I've stumbled onto a military coup in progress. Tanks rumble down the main streets of small towns; infantrymen march along country roads followed by jeeps carrying mounted machine guns; soldiers watch from foxholes. No one waves.
Troops and weaponry are concentrated in the farming country north of Seoul, both inside and out of the CCZ, in what are called the Munsan and Cheorwon invasion corridors—broad avenues of level ground that for centuries have served as attack routes to the south. The view from a Black Hawk transport helicopter reveals South Korean Army camps and weapons depots stashed in almost every draw and valley along the edges of the ancient war corridor. The 15,000 U.S. soldiers with the Second Infantry Division are also dug in here, spread out at 17 camps.
For a week U.S. Army personnel whisk photographer Mike Yamashita and me around by van, jeep, and helicopter to see the troops in dress rehearsals for war. One night I watch from a hilltop as sleek Apache helicopters with antitank missiles hover over a village and shoot targets with laser gear. On another day medics practice carrying stretchers under barbed wire as snipers fire on them.
The most intense exercise involves more than 600 soldiers from the 506th Infantry Battalion at Camp Greaves, who are conducting a mock air assault inside the CCZ. Black Hawks drop the troops at night into what the officers called "dinosaur country"—rough, up-and-down terrain—where the men have to clear the high ground of enemy forces (convincingly played by U.S. soldiers with their uniforms turned inside out). A few hours after dawn, a firefight (with blanks) erupts on a nearby hillside. Screams and curses tear through the air as a platoon leader tries to direct his men. Mortars boom and yellow clouds from smoke bombs drift over a greenhouse, flushing out a farmer, a real one, who wants to see why all hell is breaking loose.
No one pays the exasperated farmer any attention. To the soldiers, all civilians look out of place in the security zones, pieces of geography defined and controlled by the military. To the generals the terrain represents a battlefield, pure and simple. Ridgelines offer strategic points from which to shell the enemy. Valleys are invasion routes for tanks. Rivers act as barriers.