At the edge of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea, tourists peer into the residual morning fog. South Korean soldiers in combat fatigues patrol a concrete balcony, enforcing the yellow no-photo line painted on asphalt tiles. A stretch of spiraling barbed-wire fence snakes through the lush valley below. Barely visible on the other side: the border with North Korea.
With countless landmines strewn but obscured in the Korean buffer zone, the most heavily fortified border in the world embodies the converse of the Berlin Wall: The DMZ is a vast expanse of danger and suspense rather than a marked-off line of physical demarcation. By arming itself with nuclear devices, North Korea has escalated political turmoil not only on the Korean peninsula but throughout North Asia and the world. Here the DMZ remains a tangible, daily reminder not only of past conflict but of the present standoff.
At 10:36 in the morning local time Oct. 9 North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in a mountainous area northeast of Pyongyang. The U.S. Geological Survey-along with about 20 seismic stations, from South Korea, Japan, China, and as far away as Ukraine, Australia, Nevada, and Wyoming-detected a tremor of 4.2 magnitude and of unnatural origin.
Above the peninsula flew a U.S. military "sniffer" plane designed to detect signs of radioactivity. With or without sensors, North Korea made its activity plain. On the evening of Oct. 8 North Korean officials informed Chinese counterparts they intended to carry out the test, and shortly after the detonation, which took place near the city of Kilju, the state's official Central News Agency declared it a "historic event that brought happiness to our military and people."
Stepped-up U.S. reconnaissance over North Korea began with flights between Japan and the peninsula shortly after Oct. 3, when the communist regime issued a warning that it would conduct the test. In a government announcement read on state television, the regime announced it "manufactured up-to-date nuclear weapons after going through transparent legitimate processes to cope with the U.S. escalated threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure." It promised to conduct the test "in the future." After the first test North Korea would not rule out further tests in coming weeks.
Initial readings suggested a blast with an explosive force of less than 1,000 tons-much smaller than most experts had expected but powerful enough. While the blast was only a fraction of the size of the nuclear bomb dropped by the United States over Hiroshima, it was large enough to destroy an area from the White House to the U.S. Capitol and to wipe out urban life within up to a quarter mile of its epicenter. If one such blast isn't enough to make a serious nuclear power out of North Korea, it is enough to tempt a terrorist faction.
At the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953, the Armistice Agreement signed at Panmunjom left the peninsula divided at the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) near the 38th parallel. Both sides agreed to withdraw 2,000 meters, creating a DMZ over two miles wide and 149 miles long.
Because no peace treaty ever followed the armistice, the countries remain technically at war. Riddled with landmines, tank traps, barbed wire, and electric fences, the area is uninhabitable for humans, though a rare haven for local wildlife and with growing room for some crops.
Like the North's nuclear arsenal, not all vestiges of the conflict are visible above ground. In the early 1970s, in a covert attempt to invade and reunite the peninsula, the North Koreans started digging south. A defector alerted the South Koreans to the infiltration plot, but without seismic technology it took years to locate all four tunnels. In 1978, the South Koreans discovered one tunnel wide enough to transport an entire division of North Korean troops under the border in an hour.
North Koreans reportedly designed the tunnel for use in a surprise attack on Seoul. When confronted, according to local tour guide Sue Kim, the North Koreans painted the tunnel black and claimed it was a coal mine. When geologic tests revealed granite instead, the North Koreans changed their story, saying that the South Koreans must have built the tunnel to attack the North.
That sort of backpedaling and double-dealing has typified the North's relationship with the South-and the South's allies-ever since Pyongyang announced its pullout from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993 and began negotiating a nuclear pact with the Clinton administration and its allies. The following year it announced a freeze on its nuclear-weapons program but by 2002 announced it would reactivate the program. It has ping-ponged in its positions ever since.
In the late 1990s, then--South Korean President Kim Dae-jung instituted the "Sunshine Policy," advocating political engagement with North Korea. He earned a Nobel Peace Prize as a result, but critics charged that he had funneled more than $500 million to North Korea, bribing Chairman Kim Jong Il to participate in nuclear negotiations.
Cooperation with North Korea under Dae-jung included construction of the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex and the nearby Dorasan train station, rebuilt to connect North and South by rail. But since Dae-jung left office in 2003, relations with Pyongyang have continued to deteriorate. The shiny, stainless Dorasan train station now stands empty, the grid of plush blue chairs in the foyer still awaiting travelers. Next to a booth offering commemorative purple passport stamps, a sign hopefully proclaims, "To Pyeongyang."
"The North Korean regime said they will connect the road," said Han Sung-ho, 72, a retired professor from Seoul who was visiting the DMZ, "but on condition of help, rice, money under the table." At 5 feet tall and 110 pounds, Han is a political firebrand of a man, prone to cranky but good-natured monologues: "We give them rice and money, and still they drag our necks," he said with a dry laugh, grabbing his own throat to illustrate the point.
After the blast Pyongyang's neighbors and their allies felt that choking sensation more than ever. But with it came bracing unity among often discordant allies. At a Sept. 14 summit in Washington, President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun had to work to downplay differences over how to deal with Kim Jong Il. But when foreign ministers from South Korea, the United States, and Japan spoke by conference call just after the claimed nuclear test this month, it took only minutes to reach consensus on an initial response.
Hours later, when the UN Security Council met to discuss the crisis, delegates took less than 30 minutes to reach unanimous agreement to pursue a resolution condemning North Korea under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which likely means stiff sanctions but can include use of force.
The Security Council took those initial steps the same day it approved the election of South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, as the next UN secretary-general. If confirmed by the General Assembly, Ban will take over from current officeholder Kofi Annan at the end of the year.
"It's really quite an appropriate juxtaposition that today, 61 years after the temporary division of the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II, that we're electing a foreign minister of South Korea as secretary-general of this organization and meeting as well to consider the testing by the North Koreans of a nuclear device," U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton told reporters. "I can't think of a better way to show the difference in the progress of those two countries, great progress in the South and great tragedy in the North."
A special edition of Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper was issued on Tuesday to cover the announcement of the test, even though it was a press holiday. Wednesday morning's front page has nothing but articles dealing with the issue. The TV news shows are all about it as well.
The new prime minister Shinzo Abe has been known as one to advocate a hard line toward North Korea. Now his mettle will be tested right away. Japan will propose that the UN Security Council implement tougher sanctions than those proposed by the United States. These will include a ban on imports of all products from North Korea; a ban on port calls by ships and planes from North Korea; a ban on allowing senior North Korean officials to enter or pass through UN member countries. In any case, Japan is prepared to implement unilateral sanctions similar to these.
Koreans are by far the largest foreign ethnic group in Japan. Many were brought here forcibly during wartime. Those born here are still considered Korean. So far there doesn't seem to be any violent reaction against ethnic Koreans, but there has always been discrimination against them.
How do you handle a megalomaniac? Threats don't work, and appeasement only feeds his illusion. The option of direct action is scary to contemplate, but it may turn out to be the only viable one.
A nuclear North Korea would certainly destabilize the region. I think nuclear phobia is still too strong here for Japan to consider developing its own nuclear weapons. Pacifism is still dominant among the general population. If the threat and provocation are strong enough, this could conceivably change, but I don't think it is likely. Right now, I think the Japanese are prepared to take any and every measure short of violence to prevent the emergence of North Korea as a full-fledged nuclear power. If and when these prove insufficient, who knows? It would force many pacifists to face up to the inadequacy of their worldview.
Norbert Vollertsen, German doctor and human-rights activist who worked in North Korea:
The current nuclear crisis with North Korea is a "chance"-to end the evil regime of Kim Jong Il. Since 2001 we human-rights activists were looking for more exposure of the human-rights violations of Kim Jong Il. Nobody cared. Then came 9/11 and the Iraq war and North Korea was called one member of the "axis of evil." It now has proved to really belong there.
We have also to refocus on human-right issues again. The ordinary North Korean people are nice human beings who are taken hostage and brainwashed by the criminal mafia clan around Kim Jong Il. And like any ordinary kidnapper he is threatening his victims, and blackmailing the outside world with his weapons.
Like with any ordinary kidnapper: You can talk with him, negotiate, even make a deal to release his hostages-but in the end you have to arrest him.
Russell Board is a mission worker in Japan.