The Cold War's last frontier

IN PANMUNJOM, within the demilitarised zone, the battle line dividing Korea is policed by throngs of strong, unsmiling soldiers. Still, someone here has a sense of humour. After all, this tense border zone is called Peace Town.

Serenity was pounded from Panmunjom in the Korean War when the city was levelled. Modern Panmunjom, a compound of barracks enclosed by barbed wire studded with watchtowers, is a testimony to hate and division, a monument to military madness.

Forty years after the Korean War ended on July 27, 1953, what was intended as a temporary truce survives year after year as a scary stalemate. And two of world's largest armies still square off in Panmunjom.

The confrontation might seem archaic after the collapse of communism in Russia and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But a visit to the heavily-guarded demilitarised zone is not merely a waltz through four decades of hysterical paranoia, but also an eerie reminder that the New World Order can still be ignited by the smouldering embers of the nasty old world.

Tourists are irregularly welcomed to the zone, perhaps the most bizarre holiday hell-hole in the world. Instead of hotels or duty-free shops, visitors are treated to films depicting the evils of communism and the glories of democracy. Or vice versa.

Comparing the contrasting points of view can be difficult, since few people have been on both sides of the line. Anyone managing this difficult feat quickly sees how much the Koreans, bitter enemies for four decades, have in common.

My first view of the zone came in North Korea, where I arrived by train from Beijing. Months of applications produced a rare visa. From the capital of Pyongyang, I rode the rails south to Kaesong, passing countless statues of Kim II-sung, absolute dictator of North Korea since its creation, and the world's longest reigning ruler.

The last leg of the journey was on Reunification Highway, a modern thoroughfare running 16 kilometres from Kaesong and ending at the demilitarised zone. A sign notes hopefully, ''Seoul - 70 kilometres''.

Guards escort our group inside a concrete bunker where we are briefed by Major Li Hong-sap. Wielding a baton, he uses a scale model to show ''how the American invasion was repelled by our valiant forces''.

On the walls are pictures detailing the atrocities committed by ''American hooligans'' and their ''South Korean stooges''. The photos are familiar. They are displayed in every train station, airport and government building in North Korea.

A photo of an angry crowd is captioned: ''South Korea Under the Occupation of the US Imperialists''. Others mention ''the South Korean puppet police'' and praise ''the patriotic students of South Korea''.

And it gets more ridiculous. One booklet reproduces numerous ''secret US war plans''. Only the tiny print of one is readable, a letter from former American secretary of state John Dulles thanking his Seoul hosts for dinner and the gift of a vase.

These mementos of mistrust are for sale along with demilitarised zone pins and other tourist trinkets. Most remarkably, payment is in US dollars.

Not to be outdone, South Korea unleashes its barrage of propaganda proving that Koreans north and south may be separate, but share the same paranoia.

Beaches as distant as Cheju Island are patrolled to prevent against another invasion. Bus signs warn South Koreans to watch for spies. All are constant reminders that, 40 years after armistice, both Koreas remain embroiled in the world's longest war.

Atrocities also figure heavily in literature on this side of the zone, a four-kilometre strip of no-man's land running the width of the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel. The line was originally proposed by a general in a Cairo hotel room in 1940.

When it was suggested at the start of the Korean War, the sides decided to go on fighting, kill a million more men, then settle on the same line in 1953.

Hundreds of peace talks have failed to settle the issue. About the only agreement reached is on the line itself, although it is visible only at one place.

Tourists now pose at the peace conference table, a weird white line across its width.

One marvels at the energy expended to maintain the division. My return to the zone involved a journey of 5,000 kilometres. Returning through North Korea to Beijing, I flew to Hongkong, then Seoul, where I joined a Japanese tour bus to Panmunjom. All thisto sit at the same table, a handshake from where I sat the month before.

Sergeant Gregory Hilton of Baltimore is our tour guide. For all the tough talk about the superiority of the American way, North Korea throws a better border party.

With all the hi-tech gadgets at its disposal, the United Nations force in South Korea is as subtle as a sledge hammer. They show a film of North Korean guards doing a Nazi goose-step. They whine about shortage of goods and brutality in North Korea.

Sergeant Hilton said South Korea's viewing platform in the zone was known as Freedom House. It overlooks Freedom Bridge. There is a single small village on either side of the zone. On the north side is Kijong-dong, or Peace Village.

''We call it Propaganda Village,'' said Sergeant Hilton, explaining it was inhabited by guards who blare Kim II-sung's propaganda from loudspeakers. Less than two kms south is Daesong-dong, perhaps the most heavily-guarded settlement in the world. About40 families farm the land under armed guard and strict curfew. They must be in by 10 pm: lights out at 11. Nonetheless, Sergeant Hilton calls it ''Freedom Village''.

Life is stranger than fiction in the Korean zone, a schoolyard creation that might be dismissed if both sides were not armed to the gills. The latest hiccup concerns North Korea's nuclear development programme. Do they have the bomb or not? No one knows.In the zone, they can't even settle the Ferocious Flagpole Controversy.

Hilton said both villages in the zone boast flagpoles that have extended over the years. South Korea finally surrendered. The pole in Kijong-dong stands 160 metres high. The flag is 30 m long and is estimated to weigh 273 kilograms.

And the flagpole battle rages at the conference tables, where more than 1,000 peace talks have been held. Each side brought bigger and bigger delegation flags, eventually dwarfing the delegations. A compromise settled the issue. Sort of.

''Theirs is slightly taller,'' Sergeant Hilton said, ''but ours has a wider tip on top. The North Korean base is three tiers, but ours has two big ones, so it's the same size. Their flag is longer, but ours is wider.'' Forty years after the war, it's never quiet, only crazy on the Korean front.

How to get there Swissair has flights to Seoul every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Cost: $2,800 for an economy class return. Visa: required.