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Bennett says the battle would unfold rapidly:

North Korea launches artillery on South Korea’s forward defensive lines and its capital, Seoul, to create panic and a flood of refugees who would clog roads and impede the movement of military units.

The attacks could be laced with Sarin nerve gas and blister agents — North Korea reportedly has 2,500-5,000 tons stockpiled — as commandos infiltrate the South via aircraft, submarines, ships and tunnels under the DMZ.

South Korea and the U.S. hit back with massive artillery fire, combat aircraft, ballistic missile and special forces strikes. U.S. Marines begin deploying from Japan.

— It could then go nuclear. China would join the fray.

The casualties would be staggering.

“The biggest unique thing is that if anything happens here it’s going to be what we would term a major combat operation — it’s not irregular warfare, it’s not counterinsurgency,” Rayman said. “The big deal is that if something happens here, it’s going to be a big fight.”

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The stakes are easy to overlook in Panmunjom, up the road from the base camp of Taylor’s border battalion. One of the unit’s most visible missions is protecting — and showing around — more than 100,000 tourists and VIPs who flood the DMZ there each year.

Along with their military duties, soldiers actually act as tour guides for visitors who pour in by the busload, snap souvenir photos of the sky-blue barracks of Panmunjom’s iconic “Conference Row” and absentmindedly sip bottled water as they are lectured on Korea War history. At times, North and South Korean briefers can be seen leading their groups just meters away from each other, on either side of the line.

“People just see us as tour guides with guns,” Cpl. Jon West, of Tallahassee, Florida, said as he and about a dozen other soldiers ate dinner at “Sanctuary Club,” the Camp Bonifas mess. “It’s really not that. You’re ready all the time.”

But U.S. troops in Korea — who go by the motto “Fight Tonight” — are gradually pulling back from the DMZ.

Strapped by more than a decade of expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is downsizing and preparing for fundamental readjustments under a soon-to-be-slashed budget. Last month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that will mean a leaner, more agile posture around the world.

South Korea is feeling the changes already. Most of the U.S. forces here are to be repositioned to consolidated bases south of Seoul by 2016. In three years, South Korea will assume operational command — meaning it will be in charge if a conflict erupts.

In the DMZ, the South Korean army already makes up 90 percent of the 750 soldiers deployed to the Joint Security Area. For them and the 70 or so U.S. soldiers who remain under Taylor’s command, life is calm, but uneasy.

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