Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Air of danger now a draw at Koreas' DMZ

Already site of odd fascination, new tension adds to border's lure

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IMJINGAK, South Korea -- Busloads of tourists still show up to gawk at the world's most heavily fortified border, even as governments on both sides threaten to reduce each other to rubble.

Chinese tourists browse through military garb -- child-sized -- in the gift shop. Japanese teens in maroon school blazers flash peace signs and giggle high above a landscape of bright-blue water, drab, brown North Korean hills and seemingly deserted villages.

The Koreas' border can seem a surreal place at the best of times -- part tourist trap, part war zone. An amusement park, fast-food joints and kitschy souvenir shops mix with an ever-present Cold War tension that is higher now than it has been in years, following North Korean outrage over UN sanctions and joint U.S.-South Korean military drills.

Pyongyang has threatened to reduce Seoul to a "sea of fire" and stage pre-emptive nuclear attacks on Washington, while South Korea vows if it is attacked, it will respond with even greater force. Visitors to the demilitarized zone Thursday viewed the clash with curiosity, fear, excitement -- even a dash of romance.

"We were a little bit afraid that maybe they'd throw nukes across the border," Thomas Wolfley, a 32-year-old software engineer from Los Angeles, said, describing his initial feelings when he heard the North's threats. "It makes it more exciting. I'm confident that if anything were to happen, the United States would come get me."

The border allows visitors to experience a touch of danger -- but not so much that it interferes with their shopping and picture-taking.

Hundreds of thousands of troops from both Koreas operate in fairly close proximity here, each side training lots of big weapons on its opponent's not-too-distant capital.

Seoul is only an hour's drive away, and the dense, chaotic, vibrant sprawl of that megacity can seem like another world as it gives way to farms, scrubby mountains, armed sentries watching for North Korean infiltrators and coiled wire separating the highway from the banks of the Han River.

The four-kilometre-wide DMZ is potentially a violent place, a point that's occasionally obscured by the tourists and DMZ-stamped T-shirts and hats.

Shooting still breaks out occasionally. A monument in the DMZ stands as a memorial to two American officers hacked to death with axes in 1976 by North Koreans during a fight that began as a dispute over U.S. efforts to trim a tree.

Tourists line up for the chance to walk deep below ground into North Korean infiltration tunnels, many of them surprisingly well-made, that have been discovered over the years.

The high point of many tourists' DMZ visits is a small group of huts in Panmunjom, which straddles the border and is the place where troops from North and South come closest.

South Korea sends some of its tallest, toughest soldiers to Panmunjom. They stand statue-still, in fierce martial arts poses, chests stuck out, fists clenched, helmets and sunglasses reflecting the sun as they stare north. North Korean soldiers, smaller than their southern counterparts, glare through binoculars and gesture towards the south.

An attack at Panmunjom is unlikely, but a sudden North Korean strike in disputed waters in the Yellow Sea is certainly a possibility. Violence blamed on Pyongyang in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.

Pyongyang's most recent threats follow UN sanctions imposed last week over its third nuclear test, which it conducted Feb. 12. North Korea says ongoing annual U.S.-South Korean military drills are invasion rehearsals.

Among other declarations, North Korea has said it will no longer recognize the armistice that ended the 1953 Korean War, though it has made such remarks before. The UN says the armistice cannot be abandoned unilaterally. The most obvious product of that agreement -- the DMZ -- seems unchanged.

Experts dismiss the North's threat to launch nuclear missiles against the United States, saying Pyongyang is years from developing the technology needed to pull that off.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2013 A19

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