SASI-RI, North Korea (AP) — The North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone is a hive of activity — not of fighting, but of farming.
Beyond the barbed wire, ruddy-faced North Korean soldiers put down their rifles Wednesday and stood shoulder to shoulder with farmers as they turned their focus to another battle: the spring planting.
As neighboring nations remain on guard for a missile launch or nuclear test that South Korean and U.S officials say could take place at any time, the focus north of the border is on planting rice, cabbage and soybeans. In hamlets all along the DMZ, soldiers were knee-deep in mud and water as they helped farmers with the spring planting.
Inside the DMZ, hundreds of North Korean soldiers marched in a line with backpacks. On a hilltop above them in North Hwanghae province, Col. Kim Chang Jun said they were being dispatched to farms — but still prepared for war if need be.
“From the outside, it looks peaceful: farmers are out in the fields, children are going to school,” he said. “But behind the scenes, they are getting ready for war. They’re working until midnight but come morning, if the call comes, they’ll be ready to go to battle.”
To the west, inside the Joint Security Area that is the heart of the DMZ, a tense quiet hangs over the area that divides North from South. This is the spot that foreign tourists see, a stage where the observation decks, pavilions, pine trees, cherry blossoms and azaleas belie the tanks and traps hidden from view along the 2.5-mile-wide (4-kilometer) buffer zone.
South Korean soldiers stand with fists curled at their hips in a combat-ready mode borrowed from taekwondo. Across the way, a unit of North Korean soldiers goosesteps into position, rifles slung across their backs. Visitors on a tour bus from the South Korean side peer up at a North Korean building known as Panmungak.
Because of the tensions, tourists are not allowed inside the three blue conference halls straddling the border, North Korean Lt. Col. Nam Dong Ho said. Typically, they are allowed to go into the meeting rooms as soldiers from both Koreas stand guard.
“This is a place that the whole world is watching, so of course it seems quiet on the surface,” said Nam, who guides tours to Panmungak. But he said the prospect of war is always on the minds of soldiers manning the world’s most militarized border.
“Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t worry about war?” he told the AP on Tuesday. “We don’t want a war. But if the American imperialists provoke us unjustifiably, we will answer with a nuclear war.”
Since early March, North Korea has steadily and dramatically ramped up the rhetoric warning of a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, though it has quieted in recent days.
Leader Kim Jong Un ordered soldiers in charge of North Korea’s arsenal of missiles on standby and North Korean officers at the front line severed communications with the South Korean military.
North Korea takes issue with tightened U.N. sanctions punishing Pyongyang for carrying out a long-range rocket launch in December and conducting a nuclear test in February in violation of Security Council resolutions. Pyongyang also is incensed by joint U.S.-South Korean military drills taking place now south of the border, annual exercises that this year have included nuclear-capable bombers and fighter jets.
South Korean defense officials say the North has moved missiles to the east coast, including a medium-range missile believed to be designed to strike U.S. territory, but there has been no indication of when they might test-fire the weapon.
When asked about North Korea’s plans to fire a missile, Lt. Col. Nam said he didn’t know anything specific, adding with a chuckle, “That’s a national secret, top secret among secrets.
“But we have made it clear: Our army is capable of striking any place on earth.”
As diplomats in the region conferred about how to bring down the tension and rein in an increasingly belligerent Pyongyang, Nam and Col. Kim reiterated in separate interviews this week that North Koreans want peace. But they said North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons, seen here as a necessary deterrence against the powerful “American imperialists.”
“We want to live peacefully and happily, but we will not sit by for one second if we are provoked,” said Kim, whose job involves telling tourists about a concrete wall that the North says the South built in the late 1970s just south of the DMZ. North Korea considers the structure an affront to the goal of reunification.
“If a (nuclear) war breaks out, the death and destruction would be heartbreaking,” Kim said. “But we may have no other course but to defend ourselves if we are provoked.”
It remains unclear how far North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has progressed in the years since six-nation negotiations to provide aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament fell apart in 2009. After pledging to mothball its plutonium-processing plant in 2008, Pyongyang announced last month that it would restart the facilities and continue enriching uranium, which experts say would provide North Korea with a second way to make atomic bombs.
Last month, Kim Jong Un enshrined the pursuit of nuclear weapons, along with building the economy, as key goals for the nation.
Col. Kim, at the lookout point along the DMZ, called nuclear weapons “the lifeblood” of North Korea. “If we don’t have nuclear weapons, we’ll continue to be threatened by outside forces.”
For the moment, however, the labor of many North Korean soldiers is turned to the land. Spring is arriving slowly this year in North Korea, pushing back the crucial planting season by a month. Impoverished North Korea struggles to feed its 24 million people, with the U.N. estimating that two-thirds of the population cope with chronic food shortages.
Farmers in Panmunjom-ri, the North Korean village inside the DMZ, were busy planting rice, cabbage, soybeans and radish in fields surrounded by barbed wire and anti-tank barriers.
Elsewhere, faces flushed and still in their uniforms, men and women soldiers waded into muddy paddies and bent down with fistfuls of spinach to plant.
Around them, red banners fluttered in the wind. One read, “At a breath,” a phrase urging North Koreans to work hard. The other read, “Defend to the death.”
Follow AP’s bureau chief in Pyongyang at http://www.twitter/newsjean.