Reporter's Notebook: Along the DMZ

There I was, eyeball to eyeball with North Korea’s finest foot soldiers, and I didn’t even blink.

Well, neither did they. They were too busy snapping tourist pictures!

This bizarre scene was just one of many I saw during my trips last week to the Demilitarized Zone, the super-enforced No Man’s Land separating North and South Korea.

CountryWatch: North Korea

CountryWatch: South Korea

I figured I’d better go up to the DMZ and see for myself the Hermit Kingdom behind the crisis I was covering: North Korea’s confirmed testing of a nuclear device.

With a good pair of binoculars at the first observation post you can really see what’s happening in the nearby villages in the North. Rudimentary is the key word. Folks either walk or bicycle home from a day’s work in the fields. The fields are stacked with hay in a genuine medieval style. The villages themselves not too appealing — concrete block housing units, banners strewn with propaganda slogans. Welcome to the Workers’ Paradise of Kim Jong Il.

Another town, standing high on a bluff fairly close to the border, caught my eye. Amid the fairly respectable apartment buildings there stood a tall steel tower flying a huge North Korean flag. Later, I was told the whole town was a fake, built to show off what a great place North Korea was. A Potemkin village in the middle of this quasi-Cold War landscape.

I spent time with the South Korean soldiers manning the border outposts. They work in 2-hour rotations. I guess it gets a bit wearing staring unrelentingly up and down the barbed-wired fence dividing these two lands. There have been numerous incursions of North Koreans over the years, including one a few days ago that prompted South Korean soldiers to shoot off several rounds of ammo. It turned out that the most dangerous things most of the five soldiers were carrying were fishing rods.

And that’s how it goes along this red-hot border. Everybody is on super high alert, but there’s a lot of banal stuff going on, as well. Like the photo session I mentioned earlier. It happened in the Joint Security Area of the DMZ in Panmunjom, where the 1953 Armistice that ended the Korean War was signed. Now the place is filled with buildings on either side, some even straddling the border line, used for military exchange meetings and other cross-border contacts involving North and South Korea and the South’s principal ally, the U.S.

On one side, South Korean soldiers stand ready. Big guys, I thought. I’d find out later that they have been hand-picked for their size so they will tower over their counterparts on the North side of the line.

And over on that side, the North Korean military is on high alert, watching from observation posts, marching along the pathways, standing at attention in front of buildings. We were warned by our U.S. hosts not even to point at them, because antagonizing them could set off some sort of cross-border incident.

A few days earlier, in a much publicized event, a few of the North Korean soldiers made "menacing" gestures at those on the south side.

There was no flying of the geopolitical "bird" for us, though, on this day. Just some sightseeing happy snaps. We watched as a group of visiting North Korean soldiers, complete with Soviet style round brim hats, one by one, posed for pictures with this immediate piece of enemy territory — and us! — as a backdrop.

The U.S. military is actually pulling way back from the DMZ in order to avoid this kind of North Korean-baiting. The 30,000 American troops are now stationed well south of the border. But the few who are there, like Army Captain David Fischer, don’t seem to mind the duty. It’s full of history, and boredom seems to be the only real menace. Not bad in this man’s Army.

That boredom would certainly be disrupted if North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim made good on some of his threatening sounds. Forget about those nukes. He’s said to have about 8000 pieces of artillery and 2000 tanks trained on South Korea fairly close to the border. The DMZ is the front line. But Seoul, with a greater metropolitan area population of 20 million, is only 35 miles south.

I thought of that as we drove back from one of our days on the border, and compared the super-modern landscape of highways, skyscrapers and giant LCD advertising screens with the surreal wasteland of North Korea. It certainly is another great example of that "Which System Works Best?" game we played in the ‘90s following the fall of Communism in Europe.

Then I was also reminded of that Great Equalizer. Or at least the Great Attention Getter: the Bomb. No matter how decrepit his country’s landscape looks up close, or how comical his soldiers’ act, playing with nuclear weapons is one way for Kim Jong Il to get the world’s attention, make a mark and keep him a legend in his own mind … behind that DMZ wall.

CountryWatch: North Korea

CountryWatch: South Korea