PAENGNYONG DO ISLAND, South Korea — Government marines on this lonely island just eight miles off North Korea spend their days watching for an enemy they rarely see.
The island is just below the demarcation line that divides North and South Korea at the 38th Parallel and 75 miles from the nearest South Korean landfall.
It is the most isolated South Korean outpost in the bitter confrontation between the two nations.
"If the North Koreans attack, they will come here first," said a muscular marine officer in green combat fatigues as he watched the mainland from a concrete gun emplacement. "The Communists are out there waiting."
The South Korean government frequently maintains that a major reason for its own authoritarian rule is a constant threat attack from the North.
This island is a fortress.
Marines in sandbagged posts with heavy machine guns guard the beaches. Artillery barrels jut from concealed emplacements. Sentries salute officers by shouting "Victory."
But North Korea has never attacked Paengnyong Do, and the marines' talk of attack seems incongruous in surroundings of white and pink wildflowers on grassy hills, sleepy villages surrounded by fields of rice and cabbages and herds of brown cattle grazing on the green hillsides.
Farmers working in the fields pay little attention to trucks filled with troops rumbling past on the dirt roads.
Groups of islanders were gathered outside village stores one recent day chatting as marine police with automatic weapons directed an occasional passing vehicle. Others dozed on their front porches while children played by the road.
Gray concrete bomb shelters in the villages of neat stone and mortar houses are one of the few signs that the island's roughly 8,000 inhabitants also live in a fortress.
Marine officers say they rarely get more than a glimpse of the North Koreans, mainly patrol boats in the distance. Little can be seen on the rocky mainland, even with the powerful binoculars in the South Korean blockhouses.
"Sometimes we see them," said a young lieutenant.
Hundreds of thousands of troops face each other across the border dividing the two countries in a standoff dating to the end of the Korean War in 1953. South Korea refused to sign an armistice, and technically the two nations are still at war.
Brig. Gen. Cho Ki Yob, the marine commander on the island, says North Korea has two army divisions on the adjoining coast and they could attack at any time. Practice invasion alerts are held monthly.
"The soldiers and people live here under heavy tension," Cho said.
A marine rock band dressed in green camouflage uniforms played electric guitars and drums as the general chatted at a reception. A young corporal crooned a love song into a microphone.
Served in Vietnam
A quiet, small man with unblinking brown eyes, Cho served in South Korean units that fought alongside U.S. forces in the Vietnam War.
"We killed many Viet Cong," he said.
The general wore a steel helmet and had his pistol strapped to his side as he nibbled a cheese hors d'oeuvre.
Cho and others on the island talked constantly about the South's crusade against communism. Everyone on the island would rather die than live under communism, the general said.
"The people here live together or die together," Cho went on. "That is why they are united."