Published: July 2003
Korea's DMZ: Dangerous Divide
By Tom O'Neill
Inside a "shoot house" at Camp Bonifas, South Korean infantrymen armed with live ammunition practice close-quarters combat. The soldiers are stationed a mile from Panmunjom, a DMZ enclave where meetings between North and South Korea are held. The Bonifas troops regularly practice rescue operations in case North Koreans should kidnap U.S. or South Korean officials meeting at Panmunjom.

Day eighteen thousand, give or take a few, of the cease-fire between South and North Korea begins like most other days: Soldiers are preparing for war. In the bitter cold of pre-dawn darkness, 15 South Korean infantrymen huddle together on a road outside a sleeping farm village and streak their faces with camouflage paint. They snap magazines of live ammunition into their M4 assault rifles. With the wind comes a faint strain of martial music, as if from a ghostly parade, carrying from huge speakers mounted across the border in North Korea. At a hand signal from the platoon leader, the soldiers noiselessly line up and then disperse, melting into the surrounding blackness.

Their mission is to patrol a short stretch of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the contentious no-man's-land that has divided the two Koreas for 50 years. The bright lights of Seoul, the South Korean capital, burn less than 35 miles (56 kilometers) away, but here in the fenced-off, land-mined, guard-towered DMZ, the only reality is a shadowy cat-and-mouse game played between soldiers of warring armies. Every 15 minutes the radioman murmurs the platoon's position back to the command post: a road, a rice field dike, now the border itself.

As the platoon approaches a North Korean guard tower, the leader signals his men to stay alert. If the patrol is particularly lucky, a North Korean soldier will recklessly dash through the brush and offer to defect with state secrets. If it is particularly unlucky, the North Koreans will open fire. That would be unlucky for all of us: In a worst-case scenario, Korea's uneasy peace could shatter, spilling war across the peninsula, with millions killed, and then possibly on to China, Japan, and beyond, pushing the world toward possible nuclear war.

Apocalyptic thoughts come easy here. In a world full of scary places—Kashmir, Chechnya, the West Bank—the DMZ is perhaps the scariest of all, considering the massive fire-power deployed on both sides and the brinkmanship practiced by the rival camps. All along the 148-mile (238-kilometer) truce line that bisects the Korean peninsula, hundreds of thousands of well-trained troops from two of the world's largest armies (plus more than half of the 37,000 United States troops stationed in South Korea) stand ready to fight, trained by their commanders to hate their ideological opposites and never to let their defenses down.

This state of emergency has persisted since July 27, 1953, when an armistice agreement halted the vicious fighting of the three-year-old Korean War. The origins of the conflict go back to the end of World War II, when the peninsula was split at the 38th parallel by the Soviet Union and the United States as the Allies drove Japan out of Korea. With the tacit consent of its Soviet patron, North Korea launched a surprise, tank-led invasion across the line on June 25, 1950, seeking to impose communist rule throughout the peninsula. China, another freshly minted communist power, entered the war in October, sending waves of soldiers into North Korea when UN forces threatened to overrun the Yalu River on the Chinese border. By 1953 almost 900,000 soldiers had died—and more than two million civilians had been killed or wounded—as the South Korean military, joined by United Nations troops composed mostly of American units, battled the forces of North Korea and China to a standstill.

The end of fighting did not bring an end to hostilities. To separate enemies straining at their leashes, the armistice carved out the DMZ, a 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) wide swath of mostly mountainous land stretching across the peninsula near the 38th parallel designed to serve as a buffer zone, off-limits to large troop concentrations and to heavy weaponry like tanks and artillery. Straight down its center was drawn the political border, called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). Then as now, anyone trying to cross the MDL would likely be shot.

To this day, South Korea and North Korea do not recognize each other as sovereign nations. In fact the two Koreas are officially still at war. And often they act like it, keeping tensions sharp as a blade throughout the peninsula and especially along the DMZ.

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.

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."

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.

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.

In recent times, however, new sets of eyes, civilian eyes, are looking more closely at the DMZ landscape and seeing a very different kind of place. Elderly South Koreans come on weekends to the Freedom Bridge above the Imjin River and gaze longingly across the DMZ to the nearby mountains of North Korea. They see a homeland.

The Korean War split the families of more than seven million people, many of whom fled south during the conflict to escape communist rule. Since 1953 all communication—via mail, phone, or travel—has been cut off by the North. Following a historic summit meeting in 2000, leaders of the two Koreas have allowed brief, emotional reunions for 1,200 families. Over 100,000 others have their names on waiting lists. An almost tribal desire for reunification now permeates South Korean society, a legacy of the 13 centuries, ending in 1945, that Korea enjoyed as a unified political entity.

This longing for reunification reaches even to guard posts in the DMZ. In the central mountains, Sgt. Kim Seung Whan, his face streaked with war paint from martial-arts practice, admits that he is uneasy about the prospect of fighting North Koreans. "They are our brothers," he says, "and yet they are our enemies. It is heartbreaking."

Entrepreneurs also eye the DMZ, scanning the lowlands on the peninsula's west and east coasts and seeing corridors for trade and tourism. Recently, both governments have cleared minefields inside the DMZ for two north-south railways closed since the war. In February the first cross-border road in 50 years opened to take South Korean tourists to visit Mount Kumgang, a cluster of sacred peaks in the North.

But the most compelling—and dreamy—vision belongs to conservationists. They look at the wetlands of five rivers crossing the DMZ, and at the Taebaek Mountains, a steep forested maze of 5,000-foot (1,500-meter) peaks near the east coast, and they see international peace parks, ecosystem preserves, and wildlife sanctuaries.

One of the few good things to come from Korea's 50-year standoff, the security shield erected around the DMZ and its buffer zones has inadvertently preserved the largest piece of undeveloped land—more than 960 square miles (2,500 square kilometers)—in all of South Korea, one of the world's most densely settled countries. Most of the wilderness remains off-limits, however. To see the DMZ's star wildlife attractions—two species of rare Asian cranes that winter in the Cheorwon Basin—visitors first must apply to the military for permission.

Until tensions ease on the border, which seems a very distant prospect, the only powerful binoculars allowed inside the DMZ will belong not to bird-watchers but to soldiers manning hundreds of guard posts. On a wind-ripped mountaintop in the central DMZ, a South Korean officer hands me his field glasses so I can watch the movements of two North Korean soldiers who have emerged from their guard tower. "They don't have any heat," the officer says. "I think they came outside to get warm in the sun."

In these same mountains a force of one, an amateur wildlife biologist named Lim Sun Nam, helps me finally to see the DMZ as something other than an armed camp. For the past five years Lim, a former TV cameraman, has pursued a quixotic mission to prove the existence in South Korea of the Siberian tiger, the traditional symbol of unified Korea. Tigers officially have been absent from the southern peninsula for at least half a century. But from months of camping and hiking solo in the high country north of Hwacheon, only a few miles south of the DMZ, Lim has found provocative clues: tigerlike prints patterning the snow, tree trunks shredded by large claws, the remains of pigs and cows mauled by a powerful predator, accounts from villagers of hearing roars "like a motorcycle revving."

Lim, a short, powerful man with an Army-style flattop, hurries up a steep hillside, racing the falling sun so he can change the film and battery on a motion-sensing camera. He has positioned it close to where he found several torn-up cows. Lim does not doubt that a family of tigers lives in these mountains. His dream is to convince the military to open a 500-yard (460-meter) wide gap in the DMZ fence to allow tiger populations from the north and south to meet and breed. But first he must see a tiger and take its picture.

Lim's stories about tigers and their hunting prowess spook me in the gathering dark, my nerves already frayed from living for weeks in the tense surroundings of the DMZ. As Lim camouflages his camera, a bright glow appears at the brow of the hill.

"It's a searchlight," I gasp, certain that the military has arrived on yet another nighttime maneuver. "No, friend," Lim laughs, "that's just the rising of the moon." And suddenly I for-get about the DMZ. Tonight we're in tiger country. We're in wilderness. Tonight, for only a moment, we're in a peaceful place.