UIJONGBU, South Korea – Dozens of M1A1 Abrams tanks rumbled over the hills and dummy grenades exploded. Through the haze of smoke bombs, American soldiers scrambled to battle positions near the border with communist North Korea.
For many South Korean villagers near the border, the U.S. 2nd Infantry's frontline deployment and exercises like Saturday's have been a soothing reminder of Washington's commitment to deterring hostilities on the divided peninsula.
Now that U.S. troops say they will move further south from the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, villagers are worried they'll be left badly exposed. Others feel jittery but acknowledge it's time for the Americans to go.
"Considering South Korea's economy and military strength, I'm not confident that we can defend the 155 mile-long DMZ all by ourselves," said Kim Yong-shin, 71, at Uijongbu, a town that lies between the zone and Seoul, 37 miles south. "I think they should remain."
Uijongbu is home to Camp Red Cloud, headquarters of the 2nd Infantry Division.
Like Kim, who runs a tailor shop near the base, many townspeople earn their living catering to the soldiers. Bars and barber shops advertise their services with English signboards. American soldiers and their camouflaged vehicles are so familiar they almost blend into the scenery of rice paddies and pine hills.
The Koreas remain technically in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. U.S. forces say the South need not worry about being left vulnerable.
"We fought throughout the Korean War, and we'll be prepared to fight alongside our ROK (Republic of Korea) allies and defend this peninsula," said Lt. Col. Patrick Stackpole, the 2nd Infantry Division's operations officer.
North Korea keeps two-thirds of its 1.1 million-strong military, the world's fifth largest, near the border and could bombard Seoul with thousand of artillery shells within minutes of an outbreak of war. South Korea also positions most of its 650,000-strong military near the border, and is backed by 37,000 U.S. troops.
The U.S. military has yet to reveal a timetable for withdrawing from the DMZ, but says that repositioning the troops to "hub bases" further south, out of North Korean artillery range, will give them more flexibility to deal with any North Korean attack.
The moves are part of a broader Pentagon strategy to realign U.S. forces around the globe, likely to include reductions in Germany and new bases in eastern Europe. Last month, the United States pulled its troops out of Saudi Arabia after 12 years.
The U.S. assurances of protection ring hollow for many in towns near the Korean border, especially now that tensions are high over a dispute about North Korea's suspected nuclear program.
North Korea says it has the right to develop nuclear weapons to defend itself from what it calls a U.S. plan to invade, and that it will give up its nuclear programs only if the United States provides security guarantees and economic aid.
On Saturday, official North Korean newspapers called on South Korea's foreign minister to step down, accusing him on Saturday of being a "trumpeter" for the United States.
Many older South Koreans have vivid memories of the fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War, which devastated much of the peninsula.
Since the war, North Korea has become an impoverished country that can hardly feed its people without outside aid. South Korea has rebuilt itself into a democracy with the world's 11th largest economy, thanks partly to the security provided by the U.S. military.
Still, not everyone will be sad to see the American forces withdraw.
Jun Sei-jin, a 15-year-old middle school student in Uijongbu, said the American soldiers "look scary" and could invite the wrath of North Korea. "If they are here, North Korea will attack them and there will be more damage for us," she said.
Young people tend to focus more on reconciliation with North Korea and see the U.S. military presence as irritating or humiliating. After two girls were hit and killed by a U.S. military vehicle, youngsters joined large anti-U.S. protests late last year. But gratefulness toward the American troops who fought during the war to defend South Korea remains strong among old South Koreans.
For some residents along the DMZ, it's a love-hate relationship with American troops.
"I hate U.S. soldiers. I don't even want to take them on my taxi," said Suh Man-sup, a 48-year-old taxi driver. But he added: "I would feel safer with U.S. troops near the border."