- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

OBSERVATION POST OUELLETTE, South Korea - The American soldiers turn their heads slowly, examining ridges, trees and even tiny twigs that explode in detail amid green hues in the night-vision scopes suspended from the rims of their Kevlar helmets. The M-16 rifles in their camouflaged hands follow in a sweep across a mist-covered North Korean landscape that begins only yards away with shadows cast by the full moon.

For the next 10 days, the squad of a dozen men will sleep in barracks covered by camouflage nets on the protected south side of Ouellette’s wind-swept ridge. They might encounter North Korean soldiers while on patrol. From time to time, the enemy slips south across a border marked only by rusted yellow signs spaced several hundred yards apart.

Should that happen, the Americans will make their presence known and the North Koreans will probably flee to their side of the Military Demarcation Line, the official North-South border that bisects a 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone established nearly 50 years ago by a truce that ended fighting in the Korean War.

American soldiers struggle to describe their existence here — whether at Ouellette, Camp Bonifas less than a half-mile to the south, or at nearby Panmunjom, a Cold War display of guard booths and scowling North Korean soldiers that is visited by 150,000 tourists each year. Of that place, one often hears words such as “surreal” or “mind-game.”

One American officer compares life here to a Dr. Seuss book he read as a child, in which hostilities between two creatures flare to absurd levels from a disagreement over the proper side on which to butter a slice of bread.

“It’s like a ghost war,” says U.S. Army 1st Lt. Keith Hager while escorting two visitors on a rare nighttime visit to Ouellette.

The silence is broken only by a howling north wind that sets hoist ropes banging against aluminum flagpoles, from which Old Glory, the United Nations and South Korean flags were retired hours earlier at sunset.

Against that backdrop, the soldiers hear reports on the latest nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, from Seoul, Pyongyang, Beijing, Tokyo and Washington.

Impoverished North Korea is once again making a bid for both attention and aid by threatening to envelop its enemies in a nuclear “sea of fire,” a strategy it successfully used a decade ago to win billions of aid dollars from the United States, South Korea and Japan.

This time it looks as if the fanatical Stalinist state has made a bad play, with the Bush administration recoiling more with disgust than fear, Japan beginning to shed decades of postwar pacifism to arm itself against an attack, and South Korea starting to abandon a policy of providing aid and investment to North Korea regardless of how it behaves.

But life for the 200 or so American soldiers here in the Demilitarized Zone — a tiny but elite fraction of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea — moves to a rhythm of its own, seemingly disconnected from political events outside.

“From here, it’s hard to tell what the North Koreans are doing or not doing,” says Lt. Col. Matthew Margotta, commander of the U.N. Security Battalion at Panmunjom, a combined unit of about 550 soldiers, 60 percent from the South Korean Army and 40 percent from the U.S. Army.

Col. Margotta’s command includes Ouellette, Panmunjom, Bonifas, the farming village of Taesongdong, and the farmers’ vast expanse of softly terraced rice paddies that step up all the way to the border.

The area has had its share of incidents over the years including an ax murder, several defections and shootouts, all documented in great detail as July’s 50th anniversary of the armistice approaches.

There are tourists, too. They come by the busload. American and South Korean soldiers escort them to the border at Panmunjom, where they snap pictures of North Korean soldiers in crisply pressed olive uniforms. Moments later, they load up on souvenirs at nearby Bonifas while waiting for the camp’s one-hour photo shop to develop their film.

“We do our best to make transparent to the tourists just how dangerous this place can be,” says Col. Margotta, of San Antonio. “What they don’t see is the security behind all this, a quick-reaction force and extensive surveillance capability.”

In his office, its walls lined with black-and-white photos from the Korean War, he speaks in the context of recent tensions that began with an October disclosure by North Korea of a secret program to make atom bombs. “Looking at history, incidents here have tended to occur when tensions were high,” Col. Margotta says. But as tourists stroll through his military base, he adds with emphasis:

“We’ve seen nothing here now that we can pinpoint as being related to outside events.”

Soldiers speak of cycles here in which tensions ebb and flow in their own rhythms, not those of global politics.

“When the alert is high, things can get pretty tense,” says Lt. Hager, 25, of Adams, N.Y.

“How often does that happen?” one of his guests asks. “We can’t discuss operational details,” he politely replies.

Late in the afternoon, as shadows of trees and guard towers grow long, Lt. Hager takes his guests to barracks housing a unit of South Korean soldiers at the Panmunjom crossing.

Green mosquito nets cover the South Koreans’ neatly made bunks. Because North Korea has yet to wipe out malaria, hordes of mosquitoes bred in nearby rice paddies become a menace in the hot summer.

A South Korean officer, Capt. Yang, explains that his soldiers sleep with their boots on so they can respond to any incident within seconds.

In an adjacent room, a group of soldiers monitors a bank of TV cameras covering every square inch of the border-crossing area. All is quiet and the pictures are more like photographs, but the soldiers gaze as intensely as if watching a television thriller instead of an empty road, swamp or quiet North Korean guard post.

As the sun moves toward the horizon outside, the tourists are gone and only the calls of rare birds such as the stately white Manchurian crane break the silence.

Inside a central one-story building that straddles the Military Demarcation Line, a muscle-bound South Korean guard who maintains a fierce Taekwondo stance during tourist hours is nowhere to be found.

The building is empty except for Lt. Hager, Capt. Yang and two guests, a reporter and photographer from The Washington Times.

“I was hoping the North Korean guards would come down and stare through the window, but I guess they saw your blue [journalist] armbands and weren’t interested,” Lt. Hager says.

The building smells of fresh paint, a coat of U.N. light blue applied to spruce things up for the upcoming armistice anniversary.

Negotiations take place here, sometimes over inane details such as the size of miniature flags that the North and South Koreans place on a conference table that literally straddles the border.

The Americans and South Koreans sit on one side, the North Koreans on the other. Once, the North Koreans slipped in at night and sawed a few inches from the legs of their adversaries’ chairs, so they would look smaller during talks the next day.

The psych-games are not one-sided.

North Korean negotiators face the flags of the 10 nations, led by the United States, that fought under the U.N. flag to rescue South Korea from the 1950 North Korean invasion. The miniature flags are enclosed in a glass picture-frame at the building’s South Korean entrance. “It really irritates the North Koreans because they only want to deal with the United States,” Lt. Hager says.

The glass-covered display is designed to stop the North Koreans from repeating one incident in which they entered the building and used an American flag to wipe their boots.

Later, Lt. Hager takes his guests on a stroll to the nearby Bridge of No Return, a low and crumbling cement structure where prisoners of war were exchanged at the end of the Korean War.

In 1968, the 82 surviving crewmen from the seized U.S. surveillance ship Pueblo crossed here to freedom just in time to spend Christmas Eve with their families.

The North has since built a wall blocking its end of the bridge, now overgrown with weeds. As Lt. Hager and his guests approach a dividing line at the bridge’s center, a North Korean soldier steps from a guard booth and stares at the intruders with World War II-vintage binoculars.

Near the bridge lies a simple monument to victims of a 1976 ax murder in which North Korean soldiers picked up axes being used by a party of six South Koreans and four Americans to trim a tree. They hacked two American officers to death.

The encounter, documented in a series of black-and-white photos, shows Americans defending themselves with their bare hands. At the time, the “rules of engagement” prohibited firing even in self-defense.

Because the DMZ is designated a combat zone, American soldiers come for one-year tours, officially as members of the U.N. Command Security Battalion, while their families typically remain home. That can make it a tough assignment.

“I was worried when I came here because some men who come forget about their families,” says Sgt. Francisco Gonzalez, 24, of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Pictures of his wife, Yaidza, and two young children cover his locker door. Every day he calls home, prays with his wife and chats with his daughter, Yadiel, 3, and son, Anis, 1.

“Everything I do in Korea is not for me. It’s for them. With the Army I can give them everything they want,” says Sgt. Gonzalez, who is to rejoin his family in October for his next posting.

It was also tough for soldiers here during the war in Iraq, albeit for different reasons. The all say they turned to television at every opportunity and wished they could have been there.

“It felt bad not being with so many of the guys I knew,” says Lt. Bryan Ash, 36, of Huntington, W.Va., whose former unit processed prisoners at the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan, before being sent to Iraq.

But he adds, “Most of us enjoyed watching the embedded reporters. The world could see what we do.”

Television reports also gave military families a morale boost, says Staff Sgt. Rick Bryan, 35, of Castle Hayne, N.C. “They could watch and feel good about what we were doing.”

The high point of the war, he says, came when U.S. troops helped Iraqis pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, and the low point was when TV reporter Geraldo Rivera drew his map in the sand telling the world where his unit was headed next.

Sgt. Bryan’s assessment of the reporter draws chuckles from a group of soldiers taking a short break in the garage where they repair and maintain the battalion’s fleet of Humvees and other vehicles.

The 10-day assignment for the squad at Ouellette begins on a sunny afternoon with a tactical rehearsal.

First they review the rules of engagement. Then they practice hand signals for basic commands and notices such as “pick up; move out” and “obstacle.”

The soldiers move silently across a practice field in the hot sun, form a tight circle with rifles pointing outward, and later move on in an extended single file, without uttering a word.

“Stop, look, listen, smell, attune yourself to the battlefield, the animal chatter; sniff for cigarette smoke; look for broken sticks, matted grass and other signs of the enemy,” explains Lt. Hager.

As the 12-soldier squad practices, a pair of South Korean soldiers stand guard as flooded rice paddies ripple in the wind.

The Ouellette assignment begins for real about an hour later. The soldiers drop their gear in the barracks and begin blending shades of green and brown camouflage paint on their faces and hands.

Slowly they move out, down the mountain slope, into a wooded ravine and out of sight. Later, they pass several tombstones engraved with Chinese characters.

The Americans stay on their side of the border.

But North Korean soldiers are known to slip into the South, with paper and pencil, to stencil the Chinese characters from the tombstones in an act considered a right of passage. It produces a souvenir proving they set foot on South Korean soil.

The patrols continue at irregular intervals, day and night, in dense forests and atop denuded ridges. The timing, routines and formations are deliberately varied to keep the enemy off balance.

When this patrol finishes its 10-day stint it will head back to Bonifas to train. The Army expends more ammunition here per soldier in training than anywhere else on Earth. Soldiers get just four days off each month.

Newly arriving troops are called “turtles,” Lt. Hager explains. “They’re pretty nervous at first but after a few months they begin to relax.”

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