PANMUNJOM, Korean Demilitarized Zone -- The first snowfall of winter began last week and morning temperatures were below zero in one of the last outposts of the Cold War.
The rice paddies -- muddy bogs during much of the year -- are hardening. Beginning now and continuing through early spring, the ground can easily support tanks and soldiers.
For a large, land-based army like North Korea's, it is an ideal time to invade.
It has been 43 years since a surprise North Korean attack triggered the Korean War and 40 since the fighting paused between the Communist forces in the North and the combined United Nations forces in the South.
Almost 34,000 U.S. soldiers died, along with 226,000 from South Korea, 294,000 from North Korea, 184,000 from China, and thousands of others from England, Turkey and a dozen other U.N. nations.
There is no peace treaty, only a truce that dates back to a moment when most Americans living today were not even born.
It is a forgotten conflict and a forgotten place, except for dangerous moments when the old furies are revived -- as now, when concern has swelled over North Korea's potential to produce nuclear weapons.
Then, the fears of reignited warfare come alive again, as did the fear of a new attack from the North.
U.S. would fight
In recent months, senior administration officials, including President Clinton and Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, have come here and made one fact abundantly clear:
If war does come, America will be involved. And unlike the last time, U.S. and South Korean forces will be prepared.
The same cold, hard ground that is favorable for an offensive makes the defensive training all the more intense.
At Camp Giant, one of 17 installations with U.S. soldiers near the border, Capt. G. Lawrence Swift heads a combat unit of 140 U.S. and South Korean troops. He is no farther from the North-South border than his Towson home is from Camden Yards.
Last week, he returned from eight days of drills in the field. Early next month, the exercises begin again, only they will be a little bit harder, in a climate that has gotten colder.
At the base camp the day begins with a 3-to-5-mile jog, followed by more training, and the sporadic emergency siren demanding an instantaneous response to a raid alert.
Captain Swift's office is cluttered with the paraphernalia of his mission -- a gas mask, firearms, combat pack -- all mandatory gear at the front. "We're ready," he says.
There are 36,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, along with the core of the country's defense: 650,000 South Korean soldiers. In the event of war, hundreds of thousands of other U.S. troops, as well as a huge arsenal of weapons, would be called in from abroad.
On the other side of the border is an army of 1.2 million, heavily armed with abundant artillery and chemical weapons. The two armies are separated by a 2 1/2 -mile wide demilitarized zone.
3 North Koreans killed
Numerous soldiers have been killed in the demilitarized zone. Three armed North Koreans were shot to death as recently as last year while crossing the lines.
The border is only 30 miles from Seoul, the South Korean capital. Military Supply Route 1, the most direct link, is scattered with tank traps, bridges with exploding sides, guard posts and hidden bunkers.
Beneath the ground, four major infiltration tunnels have been detected, claustrophobic holes extending from the North into the South. Some are more than a mile long and wide enough for three soldiers to squeeze through side by side.
There is no casual contact between the two sides. Very few South
Koreans have ever spoken to a North Korean.
Even in Panmunjom, the strange way station in the middle of the DMZ where the armistice was signed, only high-ranking officers communicate. Soldiers from each side have only visual contact.
"Every once in a while, they call your name, but we don't speak to them. You don't want to be caught up in anything," said Gerald Anderson, a sergeant at Camp Boniface, the U.N. outpost at the DMZ.
Loudspeakers on border
The communication that does exist is old-style Cold War propaganda. Speakers mounted on the North Korean side criticize U.S. imperialism and the "puppet" role of South Korea.
Occasionally, the South responds by projecting equally amplified rock 'n' roll. Just across the border, North Korea has built a small modern city of high-rise buildings. It represents an idealized view of urban life, except that no one lives there.
Inevitably, the shifts in the outside world have had an impact, even on Panmunjom.
Following the cessation of fighting in 1953, a hut straddling the demarcation line was built to accommodate neutral observers, from Sweden and Switzerland on the southern side, and from Poland and Czechoslovakia on the northern side.
The North Korean government does not even acknowledge modern Czechoslovakia, now split into two countries, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The six chairs for decades used by the Czechs are vacant, underscoring North Korea's growing isolation the rest of the world moved away from communism.
This week, United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is visiting Seoul and the North Korean capital of Pyongyang for yet another round of talks. Inevitably, the conversation will turn to North Korea's purported efforts to build nuclear arms -- the latest source of confrontation.
North Korea has admitted to having produced some plutonium, a critical ingredient, but in insufficient quantities to make a weapon. It refuses, however, to open two facilities to international inspection.
One theory holds that North Korea is using the prospect of nuclear weapons as a negotiating tactic for badly needed
supplies and long-sought diplomatic recognition from Washington.
Another is that it would like nuclear weapons to better the odds against a better equipped, if not larger, military force,
Not always logical
But applying logic to North Korea has not always been effective. An estimated 25 percent of North Korea's economy is lavished on military preparedness, while almost every other sector is starved.
With a population of only 20 million, less than a tenth the size of the United States, it boasts an infantry twice as large, and has more than five times as much artillery as Iraq did at the start of the Persian Gulf war, according to military and diplomatic estimates.
In the last few months as the prospects of success in negotiations over nuclear inspections in North Korea ebbed and flowed, senior U.S. officials, including President Clinton and Mr. Aspin, have made a number of alarming comments about North Korean intentions and the potential for a resumption of hostilities.
Soldiers say the appearance of a crisis has caused canceled visits from family members and a flurry of calls from anxious friends and relatives.
Given the long history of intense hostility between the two countries, South Korean diplomatic, military and political observers find the current level of anxiety baffling.
"The military situation in Korea is dangerous, but it has been for 40 years," said Jim Cole III, head of public information for the joint U.N.-U.S. command. "The message is, no change."
People tend to take the confrontation in stride. "It's like earthquakes in California," said Jie Sung-Han, who recently returned home to Seoul after having studied abroad. "It's become part of life for Koreans."