It's Korea, and G.I.'s Sleep With Their Boots On By JAMES BROOKE On the DMZ in 2003, a NY Times Story

New York Times

March 18, 2003

It's Korea, and G.I.'s Sleep With Their Boots On

CAMP BONIFAS, South Korea, March 11 - The olive-green Black Hawk UH-60 rose from a baseball diamond here today, obscuring the backstop in a cloud of dust, then thundering toward North Korea. Its side doors were open, the pilot said, "so they know we are peaceful."

On the edge of this forward base, the Army helicopter arced over "the world's most dangerous golf course," one hole surrounded by mine fields on three sides. Passing over slit trenches and electric fences topped with concertina wire, it headed for the Panmunjom peace talks center, skirting a hilltop observation post where American sentries use heat-seeking scopes to check nearby woods for North Korean infiltrators.

On a ridgeline five miles to the north, the morning sun glinted off a five-story bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea.

Here at the top of South Korea, the only place where American and North Korean soldiers come eyeball to eyeball, American soldiers are on highest alert, sleeping in some posts with their boots on, ready to roll out at a moment's notice.

But, while the world awaits the next move by North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, in his nuclear chess game with the United States, soldiers say their high alert has not changed in recent weeks, during which there have been two missile launchings by North Korea and two incidents involving its MIG warplanes.

"It's like `Groundhog Day' 365 days a year," Maj. Reik C. Andersen, said, referring to the day-after-day, high-alert routine in the border post that President Bill Clinton once called "the most dangerous place on earth."

On a recent starry night on this cold-war frontier, the tinny strains of North Korean martial music wafted from loudspeakers across the valley to Observation Post Ouellette, named for an American soldier who was killed defending the hill during the Korean War. As is routine here, the post maintained a strict blackout to prevent giving North Korean artillery gunners a night target.

"Everything that is happening doesn't affect us here in the DMZ," Sgt. Caleb Baker, 21, from Greenback, Tenn., said in the fluorescent warmth of a coffee lounge, 100 yards from the start of North Korea's sector of the demilitarized zone.

Over coffee soldiers traded tips on how to make sleeping in boots more tolerable and generally agreed that their parents back home were more worried than they were.

"Whoo, boy, my parents must be going wild," First Lt. Jim Gleason, 25, of Cranston, R.I., said, glancing at a Stars and Stripes article announcing North Korea's latest military feints. "If you tell them everything's O.K., they just say, `Yeah, right.' They just presume I can't talk about it on the phone."

Here in the demilitarized zone, where heat scopes largely pick up browsing deer and Humvee drivers swerve to avoid fat pheasants, three American soldiers have been killed by North Koreans since the mid-70's. One was a pilot of a helicopter that was shot down after it strayed into the northern part of the zone. The other two were killed in 1976 while cutting down a tree in the zone. The camp here was named for one of them, Capt. Arthur Bonifas.

But now fears of new violence are growing in response to actions by Mr. Kim, who attracted world scrutiny by restarting a once padlocked nuclear program, apparently determined to build nuclear weapons.

Following a time-tested North Korean strategy of creating crises to win talks and concessions, Mr. Kim is increasing the seriousness of his military moves. In the one most talked about by American soldiers here, on March 2 four MIG warplanes apparently tried to take an American reconnaissance plane and its 15-member crew hostage. A cockpit video from the American plane shows North Korean pilots signaling to the Americans to follow them to North Korea.

"North Korea really has no other leverage than military action to bring us to the table," said Lt. Col. Matthew T. Margotta, commander of the 600-member unit here, a nearly even mix of elite South Korean and American soldiers.

"Iraq is a good time to do it, when your enemy is distracted," he continued, echoing common wisdom that Mr. Kim would make a big move shortly after an American assault on Iraq. Expected moves range from launching a medium-range missile to starting up a plutonium-producing plant to an underground nuclear bomb test to a declaration of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

[On Friday, six F-117A stealth bombers arrived at Kunsan Air Base in southern South Korea.]

The aircraft carrier Carl Vinson is also taking up a position in waters off the Korean Peninsula, where its fighters could protect American reconnaissance planes.

If American shots are fired, retaliation could come from the brown hills surrounding Observation Post Ouellette. Peering through powerful binoculars in the forward guard post, soldiers study four dark green splotches, camouflage for mortars presumably trained on this equally camouflaged post. In caves behind the ridge, the North Koreans store pieces of heavy artillery capable of hitting Seoul, South Korea's capital.

Strategists assume that if American bombers attack North Korea's nuclear center at Yongbyon, the North Koreans will retaliate. By directing fire on bases filled with many American soldiers the North Koreans could cloak themselves in the robes of Korean nationalism, perhaps thinking that they could retain the sympathy of some South Koreans who want the Americans to leave the peninsula.

"Our ability to survive a strike on Camp Bonifas is minimal," Col. Margotta said in a blunt assessment of the power of an artillery barrage by North Korea. "But it is very difficult to do a `surgical strike' here and just hit the Americans."

Observing that he is an American commander of a United Nations command security battalion, he said, "A strike here would be a strike on all three flags" of the United States, South Korea and the United Nations.

Some American military strategists have called for pulling American troops out of Camp Bonifas and other posts within the roughly 30-mile range of the North Korean guns arrayed along the border. They argue that the Americans serve as human shields, preventing aerial destruction of the nuclear plant.

Others, including Colonel Margotta, argue that withdrawal in this time of confrontation would be read in North Korea as a victory. Also, they say, this unit serves as an important symbol of the United States' military alliance with South Korea, a message sent daily to the Korean People's Army of North Korea.

In Seoul the military routine on the demilitarized zone had a familiar ring to one veteran civilian adviser to the United States military. He said, "It's like we used to say in Vietnam: The situation is hopeless, but not serious."