The route the bus traversed is part of the primary land-invasion corridor from North Korea to Seoul. Should the nutcases running the North decide to gamble on an East Asian Armageddon, NorK generals would try to jam several divisions into the corridor (a repeat of 1950). With that history in mind, South Koreans have spent the last 60 years fortifying it with observation towers, obstacles and cleared fields of fire, some of them within shouting distance of the expressway's outer lanes.
South Korea's economic success, however, intermingles with its forward defenses. My bus skirted the town of Munsan, a dozen kilometers below the DMZ. Munsan is the last northern stop on Seoul's subway system. Theoretically, NorK infantry could commute to battle in downtown Seoul, or go much further. Seoul's metro rail extends south of Cheonan, a wealthy, modern city in central South Korea.
Cheonan is also the name of the South Korean Navy warship sunk by the North in 2010. The unprovoked attack killed 46 South Korean sailors. Several young South Koreans told me that the sinking of the Cheonan had a sobering effect on them. The nuts up North mean it.
Indeed, they do. That's why I know the cold stares passing between the South Korean and North Korean guards standing 10 meters apart at Panmunjom may appear theatrical, but they aren't clowning. I've seen the look, worn it on occasion. I spent 1975 in an American armored unit, watching East German guards watch me across the now-defunct intra-German border. The graven stone face and jade glass gaze is Cold War, and along the intra-Korean dividing line, that terror isn't over.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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