SOUTH KOREA, NORTH KOREA, WAR ON TERROR, AXIS OF EVIL, GEORGE W. BUSH

As President Bush surveyed the DMZ that splits the two Koreas, a siren song came wafting over the rusted razor wire. The cold air transported the chorus of ethereal women's voices from loud speakers just two kilometers to the North. Soon the recording would stop and a man--likely North Korean President Kim Jung Il--would start speaking stridently in Korean.

Such propaganda gets broadcast every day along the 151-mile military demarcation line--a 17-inch strip of cement that runs near the 38th parallel, the line that divvied up the Koreas after World War II. I couldn't understand a word the man was saying, but the message was clear: even as we continue a new war on terrorism, one of the last battlefronts of the old Cold War is still raging.

The trip to Asia this week was, in part, supposed to clarify what Bush intended by adding North Korea to the "axis of evil." The term lit up the U.S. Embassy switchboard in Seoul and sparked protests in the country before we arrived. The Bush administration had given the South Koreans a heads up that North Korea would be singled out in Bush's State of the Union speech. But they did not know the exact wording. The White House itself did not realize that the phrase would generate so much controversy. "I just thought it was a quotable line," says Karen Hughes, counselor to the president.

Bush did not use the controversial term itself while in South Korea, referring instead to "my very strong comments about the nature of the regime." He went out of his way to stress that he supported the country's "sunshine policy," the attempt at rapprochement with North Korea through economic and familial ties. Many South Koreans thought Bush's State of the Union undermined that effort. Privately, some administration officials don't think the policy has worked and wouldn't mind seeing it scuttled.

The president explained that it was his "love of freedom" that motivated his State of the Union remark. "I'm troubled by a regime that tolerates starvation. I worry about a regime that is closed and not transparent," Bush said. There was little mention of his worry that North Korea has weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons stockpiled and pointed at South Korea and the 37,000 American troops based there. "We're a peaceful people," Bush said instead. "We have no intention of invading North Korea."

In informal settings, however, Bush insisted on defending the "evil" label and he sounded every bit the warrior he had been before we arrived. When he sat down to lunch with some U.S. troops Wednesday after checking out the DMZ, he said in his characteristic commander in chief bravado: "We're ready." Earlier on his tour, Bush looked directly into North Korea from Observation Post Ouellette. Battalion Commander Col. William Miller pointed out the North Korean town called "Peace Village" but that the U.S. forces call "Propaganda Village."

The town, Miller explained, is the original Potemkin Village. It's only made to look lived in. The lights in the village all go on and off at the same time. Miller pointed out the so-called Peace Museum. "Did you hear that?" Bush asked reporters. "They have a Peace Museum there and the axes that were used to slaughter two U.S. soldiers are in the Peace Museum," Bush said, referring to the 1976 "axe incident." "No wonder I think they're evil."

North Korea was not the only one turning up the volume on propaganda. Most of the facts about the destitute, despotic country don't need any spin. As one senior administration official explained, the North Korean army had lowered its weight and height requirements for entry into the army to 95 pounds and 4'9." (Of course it's the best fed and biggest who get sent to the front.) Before we even landed in South Korea, Hughes came back on Air Force One and showed us a startling satellite photo taken at night over the Koreas. The South was lit up like a starburst. The North had but a few pinpricks of electric light peaking out a couple places including Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

Message: this is a battle between light and dark, or even, good vs. evil. "We want all Koreans to live in the light," Bush said in his speech at the brand spanking new Dorasan train station, just 500 meters from the DMZ. His speech wasn't close to Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall..." but there were less than veiled references to how Reagan helped reunify Germany. Bush mentioned that South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung had "reminded" him that Reagan was able to talk tough and have dialogue with the Russians. It was Kim Dae Jung who called for the eradication of "the last vestige of the Cold War." Dorasan station--more modern than many in the U.S.--may one day do what the hopeful signs promise: run trains to Pyongyang. But right now, it's the end of the line.