- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

PANMUNJOM, Korea — There’s little to suggest that any threat of devastation hangs over Seoul. One of Asia’s most energetic cities, its rush-hour traffic is a nightmare of shiny, air-conditioned cars at a standstill. New high-rises are forever shooting up out of cluttered construction sites. Merchants hustle from dawn to dusk.

But in less time than it takes most people to commute to work, you’re at the doorstep of North Korea, communist alter ego of the buoyantly capitalist South. This is Panmunjom, the “truce village” and a meeting point of the two Koreas — ground zero of what’s left of the Cold War.

“Every day is exactly the same, exactly the same, exactly the same,” said Capt. Brian Davis of Rye Brook, N.Y., who is stationed at the demilitarized zone (DMZ). He says it reminds him of “Groundhog Day,” the comedy movie in which a man trapped in time has to live the same day over and over.

“Groundhog Day” in its unfunny, nuclear-tinged Korean rendition marks a milestone this Sunday, — the 50th anniversary of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. The guns may have fallen silent, but North Korea’s attempts to develop atomic weapons highlight the potential for another, more-destructive conflict. The armistice is a reminder of the failure to achieve lasting peace, but it’s also a date largely forgotten by South Koreans.

“It is not something to celebrate, just something to accept as a fact,” said Paik Sun-yup, a retired South Korean general who fought in the 1,127-day war that left up to 5 million people dead, wounded or missing — half of them civilians.

President Truman’s attempt to contain the spread of communism without sparking a wider war with China or the Soviet Union cost 33,600 American lives in combat, with more than 8,000 missing. About 140,000 South Korean soldiers and 3,200 from the 15 nations that joined the United States under the U.N. flag also died.

Communist military deaths — North Koreans and the Chinese who intervened five months into the war — are estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

More than 1,500 veterans will gather at Panmunjom for an hourlong ceremony ending at 10 a.m. Sunday (9 p.m. EDT Saturday), the hour that the armistice was signed 50 years ago. Twelve hours later, the time the truce took effect will be marked with a 21-gun salute at U.S. military headquarters in Seoul.

North Korea’s propaganda machine casts the war as a victory, rather than the stalemate that it was. Its government hasn’t announced any commemorations, but is expected to do so with choreographed rallies and defiant, anti-American rhetoric. These will likely be held in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, 90 miles from the DMZ.

The war was one of stunning reversals. Seoul changed hands four times and was almost destroyed. The U.S.-led forces were twice routed, while the Inchon landings led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur were among the most daring and successful amphibious operations in history.

Its legacy is 37,000 U.S. troops still on Korean soil, and 26 months of military service for every South Korean male.

Yet once out of military uniform, most Koreans plunge into the capitalist free-for-all with barely a look back.

“I don’t know what date the war ended,” said Choi Hae-pyong, 42, who makes computer components. “I am more concerned about the slumping economy. As long as the North Korean issue doesn’t hurt the economy, I am not too concerned and am not too interested in the matter.”

The 18-page armistice document was signed after two years of acrimonious talks between the U.S.-led U.N. Command and its battlefield foes, Soviet-backed North Korea and China.

There were no winners, no peace treaty; only wrecked cities, sullen prisoner exchanges, the creation of the DMZ to keep enemy armies apart, and a divided peninsula prone to armed clashes over the years. A sealed 155-mile border separated millions of Koreans from their loved ones.

North Korea had failed in its bid to forcibly reunify the peninsula, which American and Soviet troops divided when Japan — which got control of Korea in the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth (N.H.) after the Russo-Japanese war — surrendered to the United States at the end of World War II.

Another Korean War, this time over the nuclear issue, does not appear imminent because the United States, its allies and North Korea have opted for diplomacy for now. North Korea could inflict massive casualties in the early stages of a war, but is short of fuel and food, and another invasion would almost certainly be suicidal for Pyongyang.

But the sides show no sign of reaching a compromise, and Washington believes North Korea already has as many as four nuclear bombs.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, having seen the Bush administration wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq, views the nuclear card as his best defense against a similar fate.

But whether he can survive the failure of his hard-line brand of communism is another question. While South Korea’s economy surged as it shed authoritarian rule to become a democracy, North Korea’s path has led to isolation, mass hunger and, literally, darkness. There is barely any electricity.

In 2000, a first-ever summit between leaders of the two Koreas touched off euphoria, and led to heartwarming scenes of families long separated by the truce line being united.

But the mood has soured with revelations that North Korea received a $100 million payoff from South Korea for agreeing to the summit.

Yoo Won-hyong, 41, a businessman, has mixed feelings about North Korea.

“I hate them for being an endless problem. They started the war. They kidnapped and assassinated people. They starve their own people. Now they threaten to build nuclear bombs. They have never ceased to be a problem,” he said.

“But when I think about the poor North Koreans, I think we should be patient with North Korean behavior. We can’t fight another war.”

The 2000 summit produced ambitious plans to promote peace through investment and people-to-people contact. But political tension has delayed many inter-Korean projects, including an industrial park that will be built with South Korean money in the North Korean city of Kaesong, close to the DMZ.

Such piecemeal projects fall far short of the massive economic changes, international investment and transparency needed to lead North Korea out of its straits. Pyongyang is not prepared to take those measures, knowing they could destabilize its totalitarian government.

Panmunjom, the truce village in the DMZ where the armistice was signed, still serves as a meeting point for communist officers and U.S. officials of the U.N. Command. It is also a tourist attraction, drawing 150,000 visitors a year to the hut where the two sides met and the plaza where North and South Korean guards stare at each other with studied balefulness.

In 1976, North Korean soldiers killed two U.S. Army officers trimming a tree. In 1984, a shootout erupted when a defecting Russian ran into South Korea at Panmunjom. Three South Koreans and one North Korean were killed, while a U.S. soldier was wounded.

Most of the time, the war is one of words and gestures: North Korean loudspeakers blaring slogans into South Korea; gigantic flags; and disputes both serious and petty, sometimes comical.

North Korean authorities recently let the U.N. Command lay down gravel just north of the border during a renovation project. Then they demanded the original dirt back, and finally settled, after two weeks of meetings, for a load of new dirt.

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