An eerie, surreal quiet along the Korean DMZ

Crisis: The calm at the center of the peninsula belies the diplomatic storm that has riveted the world's attention.

January 12, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

UNIFICATION VILLAGE, South Korea - Thirty miles north of Seoul's anti-American demonstrations, and about 125 miles south of Pyongyang and North Korea's nuclear program, Han Oh Nam walks along a quiet village road. This farming village, within sight of the de-militarized zone that separates the two Koreas, is eerily calm and peaceful.

To Han and his fellow villagers, the threats emanating from just beyond the mountains to the north might as well be coming from some distant land with no connection to their own.

"Not a lot of people have interest in this subject," said Han, 56, flashing a smile and standing near his brick two-story house. "We don't really talk about current events."

Yet this is the center of the Korean Peninsula, where the world is focusing much of its attention and where the North seems determined to raise people's anxieties.

Yesterday, the North declared it might resume long-range missile tests unless relations improved with the United States, an announcement that came one day after the regime declared its intention to withdraw from a treaty banning the spread of nuclear weapons. In Pyongyang, a crowd of as many as 1 million people rallied in support of the government; in Seoul, demonstrators rallied in support of the United States.

Han, though, seems to believe that he lives apart from those events. Unification Village lies on the southern edge of the 2 1/2 -mile-wide Demilitarized Zone that separates the North from the South, an area that seems a well-maintained relic from the Cold War, territory akin to a fortified theme park with barbed-wire fences.

Villagers farm rice, beans and ginseng, wager rice wine over card games and serve as an exhibit of ordinariness for busloads of South Korean tourists making day trips to see the DMZ. About 150,000 tourists a year arrive from the South, and much smaller numbers from the North, to see the leftovers of a war that ended with a cease-fire in 1953.

Visitors from the South can walk in one of the four tunnels North Koreans clandestinely dug more than 200 feet underground after the war, as an invasion route for an army or small bands of infiltrators. A modern railroad station stands in wait for trains that don't exist from Pyongyang; the tracks end about 25 yards north of the official cease-fire line. From a lookout post in the DMZ, visitors can see an empty North Korean village. Back in Unification Village, DMZ caps are for sale. In nearby Paju, tourists can buy "limited edition" sets of barbed wire.

For lack of human activity, the DMZ has become a nature preserve, home to lynx, Korean water deer and at least 50 other species of mammals. A four-lane highway crosses the DMZ, and it is always without cars.

The 200-plus American troops at Camp Bonifas, just south of the DMZ, point out that they are the most forwardly deployed U.S. forces in the world, almost literally face to face with an enemy with whom they are still technically at war.

"The battalion maintains a very, very high state of readiness at all times," said Lt. Col. Matt Margotta, commanding officer for the 600-strong joint American-Korean U.N. Command force. But after 50 years, the military presence is part of an accepted, surreal routine.

In the Joint Security Area, better known as the truce village of Panmunjom, North and South Korean troops with sidearms stare at each other across the Military Demarcation Line. Some of the North Korean troops always face north, presumably to discourage defections. Some of the South Korean soldiers stand against the south walls of the blue tin buildings that straddle the border, reducing the target area for the other side.

The three tin shacks are flanked on each side by gray metal huts. Between the buildings are beds of white pebbles and 2-inch-high concrete slabs marking the border.

On a recent morning, a couple dozen Japanese tourists filed into the central blue shack and posed for photographs along the wooden conference table where representatives from the North and the U.N. Command meet every week. The tourists were ushered out and a U.N. flag was removed from the table for safekeeping, to make way for visitors from the North. An American flag used to be displayed inside the shack, but 10 months ago, American soldiers say, a North Korean soldier used the flag to wipe his boots.

In another blue shack, Swedish and Swiss observers stationed in the South held their daily one-hour meeting. Lacking any counterparts from the North - North Korea kicked out official observers from the Czech Republic and Poland years ago - the Swedes and Swiss apparently don't have much to discuss. But the routine continues.

Gamesmanship is also a part of the routine. After a steel-and-glass building was erected on the South Korean side in 1998, the North Koreans promptly added a level to a building on their side, to maintain an advantage in height. When the South erected a 325-foot-high flagpole, the North responded by erecting one more than 500 feet high.

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