What with traffic jams and checkpoints, the twenty-five-mile bus ride north from Seoul to the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas takes almost two hours, and so the suspense builds along the way. As the villages grow farther apart and the rice fields start to sprout concrete tank traps, you know you're getting close to the DMZ; when you cross Freedom Bridge and see Camp Liberty Bell, you know you're there. It is like a journey in a time machine, back to an era and a place where the Cold War was once hot. It threatened to heat up again, in the aftermath of the October bomb blast in Rangoon, Burma, that killed seventeen South Korean high officials and which the South Koreans believe was perpetrated by North Korean agents.
A visit to the DMZ has two stages, one Korean and one American. Off in a remote, barren corner of the zone, it is the South Koreans' job to dramatize the continuing threat from the North. Korean soldiers take away all cameras and umbrellas and pass out dark-brown military helmets. Then they lead your group on a long underground journey. The first tunnel, built by the South Koreans, slopes sharply down; it comes complete with floor mats, handrails, and even alcoves for those who need to rest along the way. It leads, eventually, to a deep subterranean passage constructed by the North Koreans, rough-hewn but wide enough (say the South Koreans) to send a 10,000-strong mechanized division of northern soldiers through in a day. Blasting through solid rock, the North Koreans penetrated far under the southern half of the DMZ before this particular tunnel was detected, in the mid-1970s. Several similar tunnels have since been discovered, and, according to one North Korean defector, there are perhaps dozens more. No one in the South knows exactly where the others are.