|KOREAN COMMANDOS - These statues depict a North Korean squad of commandos infiltrating South Korea in a 1968 raid. CNS Photo by Peter Rowe.|
A soldier exits a guard shack and boards the bus.
He shoulders his rifle and flips through the tourists' passports.
There's nothing to fear. Or is there? On a poster tacked to the shack, a grinning cat in green fatigues aims a rifle in the visitors' direction.
"Free Zone," the poster says. "Smile Zone. Love Zone."
This corridor, 155 miles from east to west and about 2.5 miles from north to south, is better known as the Demilitarized Zone. Since 1953, the heavily patrolled DMZ has divided South Korea, a thriving democracy, from North Korea, a struggling Stalinist dictatorship. Even before Oct. 9, when the North's nuclear test stirred protests around the world, this may have been East Asia's most dangerous neighborhood.
Every landscape tells a story, but the DMZ's tale is as twisted as the concertina wire spooling across its fences. In this Korean Wonderland, every Tweedledee is contradicted by a Tweedledum. A new train station and customs office sit in no man's land, unused but eloquent statements of South Koreans' hope for more contact with the North.
Nearby, though, there's evidence that this contact can be deadly. Tourists are shown a meadow where, in 1968, assassins from the North set out to kill the South's leader.
The commandos failed. President Park Chung Hee was assassinated 11 years later by his own director of central intelligence. The killer and his victim were old friends.
If that seems paradoxical, consider the earth here. The DMZ is a great natural preserve. Its meadows, forests and rivers swarm with plants, animals and, at last count, 3.2 million mines.
"So today you really need to watch your step when you tour the DMZ," says Ms. Kim.
Kim, our tour guide, is not joking. All day, our bus passes fence posts marked with red metal triangles inscribed with warnings in both Hangul and English: "Mines." She's not joking when she asks us not to quote her by name; she fears that her candor may endanger relatives in the North. (Kim is a pseudonym.) She's not joking when she forbids us to shoot photographs without her approval.
"Otherwise you will be hostage," she said, smiling. This time, she's joking.
At least four South Korean companies offer DMZ tours departing from major Seoul hotels and - for travelers with long layovers - Incheon International Airport. Prices are in the $55 to $70 range, lunch included. If you've ever taken a sightseeing tour, you know the drill: the bus, the guide, the disclaimers that your visit might be interrupted by the outbreak of World War III.
Or, as the printed guidelines distributed aboard the bus explain in broken English, "Should be halt or stop the tour itinerary under such circumstance beyond its control."
On the freeway out of Seoul, Kim provided a brief history lesson. Japan ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945, when the United States and the Soviet Union divided the peninsula at the 38th parallel. Five years later, war erupted between North and South.
Like civil wars everywhere, the Korean War was a national calamity. In a nine-month span, Seoul fell to North Korean forces; was re-captured; was re-lost; and was re-recaptured. Three years of combat killed 54,000 American troops. These terrible losses pale next to the 2.1 million Korean dead, most of them civilians.
Mournful Korean folk music is piped over loudspeakers at the Freedom Bridge in Imjingak, a village within the DMZ. The somber mood is understandable. In 1953, almost 13,000 released POWs marched across this span. Today, the fence at the bridge's northern end flutters with inscribed banners left by South Koreans for relatives on the far side.
But a different tune is sung by cash registers inside the adjacent gift shops, which peddle sodas, snips of "authentic" DMZ razor wire and T-shirts featuring chubby-cheeked cartoon characters dressed in the uniforms of North and South. At nearby "Peace Land," with its merry-go-round, bumper cars, "Super Viking" pirate ship and other rides, you can't hear anything over the screams of delighted children. As a destination, Imjingak offers something for everyone.
This delicate balancing act requires patience, nerve and a high tolerance for irony. Some portions of the DMZ are rice paddies, farmed by South Koreans who pass through armed checkpoints by sunrise and commute home by sunset. In territory controlled by the North, South Korean automaker Hyundai built a manufacturing plant - after clearing the mines.
How about the mines lining the road that South Koreans travel to the Hyundai complex?
"Officially," our guide notes, "we are still in the middle of the war. Until then, we are going to keep these mines."
SEEING AND BELIEVING
Hostilities officially ended in 1953, but Kim is right. There is no peace treaty between North and South or, for that matter, between the North and the United States.
Here, the Cold War is still frosty. After lunch, we were bused to a theater where a brief film gave an account of the war and the DMZ's subsequent history. The narration, delivered via headphone in Korean, Chinese, Japanese or English, was cool and analytical. The images - armed North Korean hordes; a tot sobbing in an empty field - were not.
Neither was the museum, with its life-size models of pillaging Communists and its timeline of postwar outrages, including the 1976 ax murder of a U.S. GI by a North Korean border guard.
From the museum, we were led into one of four tunnels that have been found leading from North to South. Descending to the tunnel's floor, 240 feet down, you wonder: How do we know it wasn't dug from South to North?
"People don't defect to North Korea," Kim said.
Although the day provided constant glimpses of the North, we saw little. In an observatory high upon a hilltop, Sgt. Cho of the South Korean army stood by a topographic diorama and in front of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the North.
Cho spoke with a crisp English accent. Born and raised in Great Britain, he is fulfilling his two-year military obligation to retain half of his dual South Korean-Britishcitizenship.
He pointed out the North Korean VIP Observatory, on a hilltop a mile across a lush valley.
North Korean guard towers.
A rusty North Korean train on its side, victim of a wartime bombing strike.
Then he directed us to the Coke machine.
"I'm not allowed to tell you a lot of things here," he said.
The DMZ is full of mystery and revelation, unresolved tension and unexpected beauty. For Koreans - and, given North Korea's newly unveiled nuclear arsenal - for the rest of the world, this buffer zone contains hopes of lasting peace and fears of ultimate destruction.
Here, what you see is not necessarily what you believe.
"We will see a lot of nature," Kim had said at the start of our day. "That is the best part of this tour. A lot of minefields here and there."
She was right. The minefields, green and peaceful, were lovely.
IF YOU GO
Getting to Korea's Demilitarized Zone is half the fun - the trek takes you to one of Asia's hottest cities, Seoul.
Incheon International's flight has a stopover in San Francisco or Los Angeles, the journey is at least 15 hours. Airfare ranges from $645 with advance purchase to $1,300, depending on time of travel.
Our hotel, the Westin Chosun, was downtown, a two-minute walk to Seoul City Hall. On the Westin's grounds is Hwangudan, an 1897 altar where emperors offered sacrifices to heaven. Today, the only thing sacrificed is tourists' bank accounts; rates start around $210. Park Hyatt Seoul and the W Seoul Walkerhill (both from $260) are also popular. Wish to avoid Western chains but still crave the latest conveniences? The Shilla Seoul (from $300) offers 21st century Korean luxury.
Taxis are plentiful but expensive. Seoul's clean and efficient subway system, though, is a bargain. For trips outside the capital, consider South Korea's superb train system.
Downtown Seoul is a walker's paradise, with sights modern - the graceful 33-story Jongno Tower, for instance, its top floor "floating" several stories over the rest of the building - and historic. Sejong-ro, Seoul's Madison Avenue, takes you over Cheonggyecheon, a revived river that tumbles through downtown; past Korea's central government complex; and ends at Gyeongbokgung Palace, a reconstructed 1395 complex of courtyards, gardens, ponds and royal halls. The view here is a study in Korean contrasts: In one direction, there are skyscrapers, some with massive TV screens; in another, pagodas stand against rugged Bukhan Mountain, rising 2,742 feet in a steep granite wave.
Kimchi, the Korean delicacy, is inescapable and a treat for lovers of spicy foods. Seoul has plenty of Italian restaurants and at least one overpriced Irish pub - O'Kim's in the Westin Chosun, where a pint of Guinness runs $19. Our best meals had Asian accents, from Korean hot pot to Japanese tonkatsu.
If your hotel doesn't offer the tour, you can buy tickets at the KTB (Korea Travel Bureau) booth outside Gyeongbokgung Palace.
For general tourism information, go to tour2korea.com; or