The DMZ Is Tense After a South Korean Warship Sank

The North Koreans were waving at us, but we weren't allowed to wave back. Nor could we point, put our hands in our pockets, or take any pictures, warned our jittery guide—again and again and again. The reason? Fear that the North Korean soldiers standing between us and the tourists to one of the world's hottest borders might think we were reaching for a weapon.

These are especially tense times here at the demilitarized zone, the 2.2-mile-wide mine-strewn buffer area that has split Korea since its armistice almost six decades ago. Skirmishes and scares are nothing unusual, but the latest incident—a March 26 explosion that sank one of South Korea's naval ships, the Cheonan, near Northern waters—could mark a major new hurdle as both Seoul and global policymakers struggle to deal with North Korea's nuclear program.

The Cheonan sinking took 46 lives, making it one of South Korea's worst maritime disasters. It also poses a political dilemma for Seoul and, by extension, its Washington ally. When the Cheonan went down, most Koreans promptly blamed Pyongyang. That theory gathered momentum this week, when first glimpses of the ship during salvage operations showed a hull that appeared to have been blasted from the outside, suggesting a mine or torpedo attack rather than an internal explosion in an aging engine room. Experts from around the world—flown in to assist the Korean investigation—won't have concrete answers for a long time, but within days of the sinking, Kim Tae-young, Seoul's defense minister, had some ideas. He suggested that Pyongyang could have floated a mine deliberately into southbound currents or that a conflict-era mine could have broken loose on its own. Many analysts support the accidental-mine theory, arguing that North Korea would have little to gain from a deliberate attack at a time when it may be considering returning to the six-party talks on its nuclear program, which an attack like this would surely derail.

The real question without obvious answers, though, is what response Seoul can take. Escalating the conflict with some sort of military response is hardly wise at a time when South Korea—flushed with national pride over just being chosen in Washington as host for the 2012 nuclear-security summit—is trying to carve out a new role for itself as a regional and global leader.

Pyongyang has denied responsibility for the loss of the Cheonan. At the same time, though, North Korea is escalating a dispute over tours to the Mount Kumgang resort, an inter-Korean joint venture that yielded about $30 million annually in foreign cash for Pyongyang. South Korea suspended tours in July 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot and killed a Southern tourist in a military zone near the resort. The North wants the revenue-generating tours to Kumgang to resume even as, ironically, it issued a post-Cheonan warning to the United States and Seoul of "unpredictable incidents" if they continued to allow journalists and tourists to tour the DMZ.

The tours, meanwhile, continue as usual. I took one out of Seoul this week and found myself on an excursion into the bizarre. For one thing, there's a dress code: no ripped jeans, no sandals, no tank tops, no sweatpants, nothing tight or sheer. Rather unfortunately, our guide does not spell out these sartorial regulations until our bus is on the road and it's too late for anyone to change. The dress code, she assures us, is serious: just days ago a woman who refused to trade her backless sandals for a pair of tour company–proffered shoes had to spend the entire tour confined to the bus. A few weeks before that, an unwise man who showed up with militarylike stripes down the side of his pants—real soldiers' uniforms are OK, but fake ones are not—almost had to stay in the bus too. Luckily for him, she said, he was released into the custody of the tour guide when he thought of turning his pants inside out.

Our guide had more horror stories to keep us occupied for the rest of the one-hour drive from the capital to the 38th parallel. They all involved unprovoked aggression from the unpredictable Northerners and tales of rule-breaking tourists whose failure got entire busloads turned back. And rules there certainly were. Aside from being told what to wear, we were also told where to sit on the bus and in the briefing center, ordered to walk in two lines when outside of the bus and told how to hold our cameras. (Even though, as it turned out, almost every stop we eventually made came with a no-photographs rule for everyone except the tour's official photographer, whose picture-taking monopoly later enabled him to sell us group photos in souvenir books for about $22 each.)

Our first stop: Camp Bonifas, the forwardmost U.N. Command base. (Motto: "In front of them all.") Named for the American captain killed with an ax by North Korean soldiers in 1976 as he oversaw a tree-chopping detail in the DMZ, it is now staffed by several hundred soldiers. An ATM and a gift shop selling DMZ caps, mugs, and T shirts flank the entrance; South Korean conscripts in camouflage face paint march in squads through the camp. One of them, armored with a bulletproof vest, is assigned as our designated guard; he stands expressionlessly at the front of the bus as we drive by barbed-wire-enclosed minefields and the open fields of the DMZ area known as Panmunjom. We also catch glimpses of two villages within loudspeaker distance of one another. The South Koreans call North Korea's border settlement Gijeon, "propaganda village," because they say it's a ghost town whose only function is to broadcast blasts of sloganeering through ultrapowerful loudspeakers. South Korea's own Daesung Dong, or Freedom Village, on the other hand, is definitely populated—this time by local residents who live there tax-free, plant their crops under armed guard, and have to obey an evening curfew.

We don't see any of the crop planters or hear any of the propaganda, but we do see the two flags flying high above Eiffel Tower–like structures. The North Korean one is way bigger and is said to weigh some 600 pounds. But, says our South Korean guide, the Southern flag went up first.

It all feels very weird and like a theme park until we're allowed off the bus at the gray visitors' center in the heart of the United Nations' Joint Security Area. This is where the demarcation line runs through a table situated between two single-story blue buildings administered by the U.N. It's where you see the iconic tableau of South Korean soldiers, legs parted in modified tae kwon do stances (bodies half behind the blue buildings that serve as shields), facing down their stiff-legged North Korean counterparts a few yards away. We can't get into the buildings where you sometimes see blank-faced soldiers from each side peering in from adjacent windows—a North Korean group had beaten us to it—but we could see that gesticulating group on the mirror-image observation deck across the border.

Members of my tour group wondered why the North Korean tourists were allowed to wave at us when we weren't allowed to reciprocate. Our guide didn't know but told us that we had to obey the rules in any case. Our tempers did not improve when she went on to admonish our kindergarten crocodile line for insufficient neatness. But even if her wide-eyed exhortations of danger had the hard-to-believe air of a campfire ghost story, the sight of the armed soldiers watching us watch made the tragedy of a divided nation seem awfully hard-edged.

Later, back in our assigned seats, we were all a little more warmly disposed to her when she explained how every visit to the DMZ was, for her, an emotional reminder of just how many Koreans had died in the conflict. This week (so soon after the sinking), she said, had been particularly difficult because of the Northern warning that the tours should stop. She and her fellow guides, she said, joked that they would be the first targets if shooting started because the North Koreans wouldn't want to aim at foreigners. By the end of our tour, it didn't feel like much of a joke.