Tense Times on the DMZ: Nothing New for South Korea
When writer Tom O’Neill and I did our story on the DMZ for the National Geographic in 2003, things on the Korean peninsula were pretty tense. In fact, as Tom wrote, “in a world of scary places … the DMZ is perhaps the scariest of all, considering the massive firepower deployed on both sides and the brinkmanship practiced by the rival camps.”
That’s why I was especially interested in finding out what was going on after North Korea’s artillery strike on the South Korean island of Yeongpang. Though tv and cable channels seemed occupied with the outcome of Dancing with the Stars, it was clear that the blogosphere was buzzing with speculation about what war between the two Koreas would mean.
In fact, a state of war between North and South never officially stopped, even though both were party to an over 50-year old armistice agreement that ostensibly ended the Korean War and created the DMZ, the most heavily fortified border in the world. The two powers don’t even officially recognize each other as sovereign states. All along the 148-mile “truce” line, hundreds of thousands of troops, including over ten thousand American forces, stand poised and ready for hostile action. As one American officer stationed just outside the DMZ told us in 2003, “We can’t ratchet up the security any higher than it already is.”
Since 1953, troops along the border have been on high alert, practicing war exercises, along with a unique form of mind games. Both sides are masters at psyching the others out – with recorded propaganda messages blasted from loudspeakers across the MDL (Military Demarcation Line) that literally bisects the North and South. Soldiers from both sides practice glaring at each other, often only feet away, with intimidating looks and loaded weapons.
In a country whose limited assets have been spent primarily on the military, and whose populace suffers from malnutrition and extreme deprivation, North Korea is a place with not much to lose. Which is why all this talk of war and nuclear capability makes the soldiers along the DMZ extra nervous these days – at any minute the war games could become frighteningly real.