SEOUL » Busloads of tourists travel the highway lined with barbed wire and military observation posts to visit the surreal, mine-filled demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas.
Monday marked the 62nd anniversary of the start of the three-year Korean war with more of the same tensions that have defined the nations’ relationships in the decades since the fighting ended in a truce — not a peace treaty — meaning the two sides are still technically at war.
An editorial in North Korea’s official newspaper marked the occasion with a call for a "new war" and "dynamic drive" for reunification under the leadership of new North Korean leader Kim Jung Un.
The U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington and other Navy ships also finished up three days of naval exercises off South Korea and, on Friday, the U.S. and South Korea held a live-fire drill, the largest such exercise since hostilities officially ended.
North Korea’s state media condemned the drills and the use of a North Korean flag in the target area as "a provocation." The Korean Central News Agency said the military moves are pushing the area "to the brink of war" and a foreign ministry spokesman vowed that North Korea would continue its pursuit of a "nuclear deterrent for self-defense."
Still, tourists buying DMZ hats, T-shirts and chocolates on Sunday in a store a short distance away from the no-man’s land separating the Koreas were mostly unaware of the rhetoric and war drills.
Except for a few rallies, South Koreans went about their business as usual. Few here pay much attention to what North Korea says.
"I do not think North Korea will attack," said Yonsei University College student Lee Ji Hoon.
Ryu Su Ra, another Yonsei student, admits to a little fear when tensions escalated in 2010 when North Korea sank a South Korean patrol boat and shelled a South Korean island, damaging homes in a village and killing two soldiers. "But I don’t think they are going to make war," Ryu said, adding that she doesn’t believe North Koreans have the technology to win a war.
"The average South Korean person just doesn’t really care (about North Korea)," said Christopher Green, the manager for international affairs of the Daily NK, an online news site specializing in North Korea news.
While North Korea regularly makes international headlines, there’s little reason for South Koreans to pay much attention to the north. They’ve heard the rhetoric before and not much is likely to change in the current breakdown in negotiations to ease tensions, analysts said.
At the DMZ tour, visitors see a train station on a rail line that actually connects North and South Korea, although trains no longer cross the border. There’s also a visit to a tunnel, dug by North Korea as an apparent attack route into the south.
The sites reflect the optimism and desire of many for reunification and the wariness of dealing with a violent and unstable neighbor.
South Korea holds presidential elections in December and most South Koreans would like to see some kind of talks with North Korea, said Peter Beck, the Asia Foundation’s country representative for Korea told journalists at a conference in Seoul, sponsored by the Honolulu-based East-West Center.
"No matter who wins (South Korea’s presidential election), there is a mandate for some kind of engagement, but there’s no sign of what that engagement will be," Beck said.
Ambassador Lim Sungnam, the head of delegation for South Korea in the six-party talks with the north, said he is not optimistic about a resumption of talks with North Korea, the United States and its neighbors to stop the north’s development of nuclear weapons.
"Talks for the sake of talks, without any trust, will go nowhere," Lim said, echoing the hard-line stance of current South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak.
The latest talks broke down after the U.S. and South Korea promised food aid to the north and North Korea agreed to a moratorium on nuclear enrichment and missile testing in February, only to see North Korea attempt a rocket launch in April that the U.S. and South Korea said violated the agreement. The rocket launch, ordered by Kim Jong Ung to honor his late father Kim Jun Il, failed.
Near the DMZ, the train station that was built about 10 years ago during a brief period of engagement with North Korea now sits empty except for tourists who pose for pictures with South Korean soldiers beneath an electronic sign for the nonexistent train to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
The train used to take supplies across the border to the Kaesong Industrial Park in North Korea, where workers produce goods under South Korean management. But goods and supplies are now trucked. Instead of being the first stop for the train to North Korea, the station is just the last stop for tourists trying to get a glimpse of what’s on the other side of a barbed wire fence.