Feature: DMZ, Flashpoint In Korea
In appearance, the Demilitarized Zone- the dividing line between the two Koreas since their war in the early 1950s- is quiet enough to belie military tensions caused by the communist North's nuclear and missile ambitions.
Several groups of tourists, including tens of Japanese and Chinese, were gathering at the Dorasan observatory - a hilltop watchtower along the DMZ, that offers a deep view into the North's denuded foothills nearby.
South Korea has arranged a half-day tour to the DMZ, the world's last remaining symbol of the Cold War, mainly for foreign visitors. The tour takes tourists close to the DMZ, including a third underground tunnel made by the North for southward infiltration.
The 2.5-mile-wide, 156-mile-long DMZ is a subject of keen interest among international ecologists as a haven for endangered species for a half-century. No civilian has been allowed inside the world's most heavily fortified zone since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
In a symbolic gesture for reconciliation, the two Koreas have recently opened two corridors in the DMZ for road and rail transport. A convoy of South Korean trucks, carrying sand picked up from the North's Sachon river, rumbled through military checkpoints and crossed the border into the South.
Just six miles south of the DMZ, LG Philips LCD, the world's second-largest liquid crystal display maker, is constructing a mammoth electronics-parts complex.
But the DMZ is still a flashpoint on the divided peninsula, which remains technically in a state of war since the Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. Their border is the world's last Cold War frontier with nearly 2 million troops on both sides.
North Korea keeps 1.17 million soldiers, the world's fifth-largest force, to face off against 690,000 South Korean troops, which are augmented by 34,000 U.S. troops.
The DMZ, created at the end of the war as a buffer area to keep opposing armies apart, became the world's most heavily militarized spot. The area is still dotted with mines, concrete walls, electric fences, bunkers and other military facilities, and has been the site of numerous infiltrations and violent confrontations over the decades.
In the latest confrontation, front-line soldiers from North and South Korea exchanged gun fire in the DMZ in July last year, a reminder the divided peninsula is still a flashpoint.
As the most serious threats to the South, North Korea has deployed more than 10,000 artillery pieces, including 1,000 of which are concealed in thousands of mountain tunnels near the DMZ, according to Seoul's Defense Ministry.
In the first hour of a war, North Korea could rain 25,000 artillery shells onto Seoul, destroying the South Korean capital city.
If North Korea's long-range artillery are fired, some 25,000 shells per hour would rain down and destroy one third of Seoul within one hour, opposition lawmaker Park Jin said at a parliamentary audit last week, citing a recent defense report.
Seoul, just 25 miles from the heavily fortified border, would fall to North Korea within 16 days if South Korea attempted to fight a war with the northern invader without immediate support from the U.S. military, the report by the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses was quoted as saying.
The Defense Ministry played down the report, saying it was a worst-case scenario and that the chances of such a thing happening were remote. But senior defense officials acknowledged the country's vulnerabilities to the North's possible artillery attacks.
The 1,000 artillery pieces North Korea possesses are estimated to pose an enormous threat to the Seoul metropolitan area, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Kim Jong-hwan told the National Assembly.
Lt. Col. Park Sang-woo at a frontline unit also said the most serious threats by the North would be its artillery attacks. But we are well prepared to immediately counter any artillery attacks by the North, he said.
In a move to ease security jitters in South Korea, the United States decided last week to retain its counter-fire assets, including Multiple Launch Rocket System batteries, counter-battery radars and Apache units, aimed at neutralizing the threat of long-range North Korean artillery.
Washington has also decided to delay its plan to scale down its troop presence in South Korea by three years in response to Seoul's request. The U.S. military in South Korea is capable of surgically striking more than 900 crucial targets in North Korea, including its main nuclear complex, defense officials said.
The United States is ready to rapidly deploy military forces to the Korean peninsula from other locations in the Pacific in case of emergency, said a spokesman for the U.S. Forces Korea.
South Koreans are concerned about their security, with warnings that North Korea could raise military tensions on the peninsula this month or conduct a nuclear test to influence the U.S. presidential election in November. North Korea has complained that the Bush administration has not taken its military power seriously enough to engage in bilateral talks.
There are no signs of unusual movements on the northern side of the border, said Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Kane, deputy chief of staff at the U.S.-led U.N. Command that oversees the Korean armistice. We are keeping close watches on any developments, he said.
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