DEMILITARIZED ZONE, South Korea -- President Clinton, in a rain-drenched visit to the world's most heavily guarded border, peered yesterday across the Bridge of No Return and vowed to "stay strong" in pressuring North Korea, which is building nuclear weapons.
No U.S. president had ever come so close to the North Korean border in the 40 years since the end of the Korean War. President Reagan in 1983 visited a hilltop sentry post a half-mile bTC farther away.
Mr. Clinton's visit here, before ending his two-day trip to South Korea and departing for Hawaii, was a symbolic reminder that, although he was elected as the first post-Cold War president, the United States remains at this tense trip wire of conflict.
As storm clouds swirled above the nearby mountaintops and rain pounded down on the heavily mined territory, Mr. Clinton walked within several thousand feet of North Korean sentry posts. The president paid homage to the memory of two U.S. soldiers who were axed to death by North Koreans here in 1976, and then he visited some of the 36,000 troops who are stationed here.
"I think anyone who has seen this would understand we must stay strong on the issue of North Korea," Mr. Clinton said. Asked for his reaction to being under surveillance by nearby North Korean soldiers, he said, "I looked at them and they were looking at us."
Mr. Clinton later was given a rousing reception by U.S. troops in a massive, camouflage-draped hangar at Camp Casey, the same place where President Bush spoke a year ago just before the presidential campaign. Mr. Clinton, who has striven to boost his credibility with the military, seemed to be a hit with the troops, especially when he picked up a saxophone and jammed with the military band.
But, unlike last year, the Army forbade reporters from interviewing soldiers at random for their views about Mr. Clinton, offering instead a dozen preselected troops who were allowed to talk to the press.
"This is a different regime and different president," Army public affairs officer Maj. Bob Kreuger said in explaining his commander's decision to prohibit random interviews.
The president, who this week is slated to decide whether and how to lift the ban on gays in the military, got his loudest applause when he mentioned that he had ordered an attack on Baghdad in retaliation for Iraq's alleged attempt to assassinate Mr. Bush.
The soldiers also loudly applauded Mr. Clinton's promise that he would not reduce U.S. troop strength in Korea even as he cuts back substantially elsewhere.
More than 1.5 million soldiers are stationed near the demilitarized zone, including 36,000 from the United States, by far the greatest concentration of military strength on a border in the world.
Mr. Clinton's visit here was a carefully scripted, made-for-the-cameras event, but things did not always go as planned. A monsoon prevented Mr. Clinton's arrival by helicopter and forced him to take a slow motorcade through crowded streets.
The president, repeating a message he delivered to the South Korean National Assembly in Seoul Saturday, warned North Korea that it must abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. North Korea has threatened to withdraw from the treaty, but has agreed to attend talks about the issue this week.
U.S. officials believe North Korea has enough plutonium to build two nuclear bombs, although the Communist government in Pyongyang has said it is interested only in a nuclear power program.
Mr. Clinton later proceeded to Hawaii. After paying homage to U.S. servicemen killed in the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he planned to spend two private days with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea.