CHEORWON, South Korea, Nov. 4 (Yonhap) -- As midnight nears, Cpl. Lee Ka-ram picks up a hand grenade and his fully-loaded K-2 assault rifle for a guard mission along the most heavily fortified border in the world. The 22-year-old cautiously walks the hills under dim orange lights, studying the border fences closely to see if they were tampered with, a possible sign that someone from North Korea could have infiltrated.
Lee's platoon is located along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 259-kilometer strip of rugged no-man's land stretching from coast to coast, strewn with land mines and barbed wires. South and North are divided by a 4-km-wide buffer alongside the DMZ after they ended their fratricidal Korean War (1950-53) in a truce. They have yet to sign a peace treaty to officially end the conflict.
"Although it seems peaceful outside, I remind myself that my country is at war with North Korea," Lee said, his own breath fogging up his glasses on a late autumn night. "Night duty is a fight against sleep and loneliness. The time goes so slowly here. I think about home, friends, my future, and almost everything that comes to my head."
Soldiers from a front-line platoon inspect barbed-wire fences to detect signs of infiltrations during their night duty. (Yonhap)
The 4-5 hour night guard missions have become more strenuous and sensitive for Lee and others after a defection on Oct. 2 by a North Korean soldier through the DMZ. The North Korean managed to scale three rows of wire fences and walk up to a South Korean guard outpost, completely undetected. He then knocked on the door and said he wanted to defect.
Shocked South Koreans are questioning whether the military that could not spot an infiltrator is capable of defending the nation. Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin apologized and said the military will adopt advanced surveillance systems at front-line barracks.
Aside from criticisms of an utter lapse in national defense, the incident has shown that defections across the shared border may become more common.
North Korean soldiers tried to infiltrate the border in the 1960s to 1980s period when South Korea was under military rule, but defections were very rare. This year alone, however, three North Korean soldiers have defected to the South across the DMZ. Just days after the Oct. 2 incident, another North Korean soldier crossed over to the South after reportedly killing two officers from his unit.
"After North Korean soldiers' defections, night guards are allowed to stop by each general outpost (GOP) for only 5-10 minutes to prevent them from dozing off during their night shift," Sgt. 1st Class Lee Seung-joo said.
Adding to the tense nerves were North Korean threats of a "merciless attack" on the South in protest at defectors' groups sending balloon-carried propaganda leaflets across the border in late October.
"When North Korea warned of a military attack on the South over the propaganda leaflets, we were put on standby for emergency situations," said Lee, a vice platoon chief.
All able-bodied South Korean men are required to serve in the military for at least two years. The South's 650,000 soldiers, together with 285,000 American troops, are the deterrents against North Korea's 1.1 million-strong military.
Only carefully selected soldiers are posted on the southern section of the DMZ for missions under the United Nations Command that oversees the Korean armistice. The number of soldiers and missions are considered military secrets for security reasons. For night missions, the soldiers carry live ammunition and hand grenades and are required to walk along a path deemed safe from land mines, wearing night vision goggles and special boots. In theory, anyone suspicious can be shot if he or she does not cite the right password within three tries when questioned by South Korean soldiers.
Participants in a military boot-camp check their assault rifles before beginning a border patrol duty near the Demilitarized Zone. (Yonhap)
When a group of 20 women and reporters visited the zone for a two-day boot camp at a front-line barracks, the participants had to wear military caps, and combat jackets with MP (Military Police) armbands to prevent their unit emblems from being seen by North Korean soldiers. The rule is equally applied to soldiers who conduct the border patrol missions.
Lt. Col. Kwon Ki-bom expressed regrets over the criticism and ridicule after the border defections. He says, however, that a high-tech advanced surveillance system won't be able to better replace human eyes in detecting infiltrations or to better handle North Koreans in some scenarios.
"I can say with confidence to North Korean soldiers that we will sternly respond to any attempt to overstep into our territory," he said.
Adjacent to the DMZ are Civilian Control Zones where public access is restricted due to concerns over land mines and explosives that remain from the Korean War. The area, virtually untouched for six decades, has an almost surreal pristine landscape and scenes from the unfinished war. Cranes were flying en masse over a reservoir on a recent cold and foggy morning.
In a nearby town, a sense of peace prevails despite the uneasy inter-Korean relations. Locals drive their trucks along empty rice fields after the fall harvest season and past ginseng farms, a lucrative business for farmers.
A group of cranes fly over empty rice paddies in Civilian Control Zones in Cheorwon, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)
"I feel sorry for North Korean people who suffer from starvation and human rights oppression," Cpl. Jung Sang-woo, 24, said. "But we have to fulfill our mission because we are facing present danger from North Korea."
Even though the area appears tranquil, Maj. Gen. Lim Ho-young, who leads the 6th Infantry Division guarding the central front line, says it is important not to forget that Koreans live in a divided country in a still unfinished conflict.
"Living just two-hours drive from here, you may not realize every day that our country is still at war," Lim told reporters from Seoul. "I am well aware that no soldiers here opted to serve in the GOP. But without them, we wouldn't be able to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula with North Korean soldiers pointing their guns at us."
Lim's reminder was not really necessary. A sign at an entrance to the DMZ read, "The gunshot has ceased, but the war is not over yet."