Cover Story

On the border of brinkmanship

With its nuclear test and worldwide isolation, North Korea turns the last remaining Cold War front into a first-rate hot zone

Issue: "Double trouble," Oct. 21, 2006

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.

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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.

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