It is hard to wear a gas mask without looking slightly comic, given the mask's bug-eyed, snout-nosed appearance. But the U.S. soldiers who responded to a simulated nerve-gas attack in a muddy field near the DMZ this month seemed to manage the drill without a smirk.
Swathed head to toe in cumbersome protective gear, they hosed down a convoy of vehicles first with water, then with a pretend decontaminating solution. They worked with such methodical concentration that it looked almost like the real thing.
The Army's 2nd Infantry Division has performed chemical warfare drills like this in South Korea at least since the 1960s. But there is no doubt that as tensions over North Korea's nuclear plans rise, the scenarios that have been acted out so many times before are at least plausible.
The 38,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea are in an odd position these days. While the world is focused on Iraq and many of the soldiers' old comrades are heading that way, they will stay put for the duration.
"You see your buddies deployed elsewhere, and maybe some people feel bad, but I don't agree with that," said Army Sgt. David Wetherell, a 43-year-old veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the father of a 21-year-old soldier now heading to the gulf.
"I know we have a job to do here too," added Wetherell, his face still lined by the indentations of his gas mask. "This is very serious work -- to protect the lines and equipment. We practice constantly."
The North Korean army is believed to have nearly as large an arsenal of chemical weapons as Iraq, including nerve gas and blistering and choking agents, according to U.S. military intelligence; and officers here say they expect the weapons would be used if war broke out on the peninsula.
"We train more than any other unit because the threat is so near and so real," said Lt. Col. Britt Estes, a chemical weapons specialist who was supervising the training. He noted that his soldiers recently received new "NBC suits," the military's term for the charcoal-lined coveralls to be worn in case of a nuclear, biological or chemical attack.
"We don't feel neglected in the slightest here in Korea. We get taken care of," Estes said.
The chemical weapons simulation took place next to a bend in the Imjin River, which runs along the southern side of the demilitarized zone, less than two miles from North Korean territory. Snow was melting into a muddy, reed-choked pond.
The soldiers who regularly train there say that nothing has changed in recent months except that the North Koreans have turned up the loudspeakers that blast Korean folk music as propaganda across the border.
They say as well that their jobs remain unchanged despite the rising tensions.
"The operations training tempo is unchanged, not to say that it isn't always high," said Maj. Brian Mako, a spokesman for the Army.
"The only thing that has changed really is the public's awareness of what we are doing."
In what is the military's equivalent of spring training, U.S. forces in South Korea have started a month of intensive drills. On Tuesday, they began "Foal Eagle," a large-scale, monthlong war game conducted jointly with South Korean troops, while another drill called "Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration" will run for one week in late March. Roughly 5,000 additional troops are coming to South Korea for the exercises.
Although the exercises are annual rituals, the North Koreans have been rabid in charging that they are preparation for an invasion.
"These exercises are in fact practice for an invasion of our republic in a trial nuclear war," North Korean state radio declared last Monday in a broadcast monitored in Seoul.
"We will not sit with arms folded and watch this adventuristic U.S. invasion rehearsal at a time of sharpening tensions in the North Korean-U.S. nuclear conflict."
The White House, along with most of the international community, including North Korea, has said that the standoff over nuclear weapons can be resolved through dialogue. But the Pentagon has also dispatched more B-1 and B-52 bombers to Guam just in case it can't.
The Korean War ended in 1953 without a peace treaty, so technically the peninsula is in a state of war. GIs are usually sent here on one-year tours without families and are already considered to be forward-deployed. President Clinton, when he visited the DMZ, called it "the most dangerous place on Earth" -- a quote that the soldiers here like to repeat, perhaps with a touch of bravado.
But the fact is that American troops haven't encountered much danger here in an awfully long time. There has been only one U.S. soldier killed by North Koreans in the last 25 years -- a pilot whose helicopter was shot down after it strayed across the DMZ in a 1994 incident that the United States ended up apologizing for.
Soldiers stationed in South Korea say they have generally felt it was a safe assignment, challenging because of the intense training regimen but not physically dangerous. They say they don't feel different today but allow that the perception from outside has changed.
Said Capt. William Vickery, another participant in the chemical training drill: "I just returned from leave, and my mom and dad were scared to death that I was going back to Korea."