At the DMZ, Troops Fight a 'Ghost War'; U.S. Keeps Uneasy Peace on Korea's Border

Article excerpt

Byline: Willis Witter, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …