GUARDPOST OUELLETTE, Korea -- Reports of diplomatic progress between North and South Korea carry little weight at the demilitarized zone, where the bizarre and dangerous are routine and Michael Jackson fights for America.
When the American and South Korean soldiers of Guardpost Ouellette patrol their half of the 2 -mile-wide DMZ, they smear on face-black and snap live ammunition into their M-16s.
The border is just 50 yards from Ouellette, a complex of bunkers and sandbagged trenches dug into a hill. It gives U.S. troops their closest vantage point on the unpredictable North Koreans, whose nearest outpost is about half a mile across the wooded no-man's-land.
The 50 soldiers at Ouellette would be among the first casualties in a conflict. They are the vanguard of nearly 1 million troops facing each other across the 150-mile strip of rolling hills and dense woodlands.
Although the Korean War was fought before most of the Americans stationed here were born, its legacy is all around in hills named Porkchop and T-Bone. The war has never officially ended, although North and South have been divided since 1953. Fifty-eight Americans and hundreds of Koreans have been killed in truce violations since the armistice.
Most days, the North Koreans blare martial music and propaganda toward the southern side. Sometimes the men of Ouellette fight back, cranking up their own sound equipment to drown out communist tributes with Michael Jackson and Duran Duran.
Other days things are a bit more dangerous. In 1976, in the nearby truce village of Panmunjom, the North Koreans axed two American officers to death in an argument that erupted over cutting down a tree.
And just last November several South Koreans were killed and an American wounded in a firefight when North Koreans pursued a Soviet man who defected from a tour group and ran across to the other side in Panmunjom.
In the distance from Ouellette is the truce village, where North-South talks over the past three decades have produced so little progress that one ranking U.S. officer snorts that their task now is to 'demilitarize the DMZ.'
'It's a peculiar psyche,' an American colonel said. 'This is a place where one person's emotions for a day can create a war.'
That's why the troops pay little attention to reports of diplomatic progress from Seoul, the South Korean capital just 25 miles to the south - a 3-minute flight by a North Korean MiG-21.
While politicians and diplomats are lifting their heads cautiously to recent overtures by Pyongyang, the military is remaining hunkered down.
U.S. military officials, in fact, say North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, 73, is pursuing his defense buildup as swiftly as ever and believe he already has worked out new agreements with the Soviets to lift Moscow's 'arms sales ban' imposed in 1973.
Kim has been walking a line between China and the Soviets for years, but in the past 18 months has warmed to Moscow, making a trip there in May 1984 and this year staging elaborate celebrations of Soviet national days.
The new tilt already has paid off in the arrival of a half-dozen advanced MiG-23 fighters, giving North Korea its first all-weather, day-night attack capability, officials said.
'They're getting new equipment, and we don't know how they're paying for it,' a U.S. official said. 'We don't know what the tradeoffs are, but some things lead us to believe there are certain new agreements there.'
The most troublesome tradeoff would be arms for bases. The Soviets want access to west coast warm-water ports that would enable their ships to avoid the narrow straits leading through the Sea of Japan to their Pacific fleet base at Vladivostok -- where they can be bottled up.
But the official's 'some things' are worrisome enough to U.S. intelligence officers: Flights of Soviet warplanes through North Korean airspace and a port call in August by three Soviet warships to the North's port of Wonsan.
The Japan Defense Agency, which detected the Bear and Badger bombers over North Korea as recently as July, said the new route would allow planes to fly more directly from Siberia to the Soviet base at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, and possibly provide a more direct attack route on sea lanes around Japan.
'It also allows them to elude the Japanese radar reconnaissance,' a South Korean official said, limiting Japan to watching the planes only when they near Okinawa.
For Kim, the immediate reward would be assistance in his ever-expanding military buildup.
The North has about 843,000 men under arms and 5 million reserves. In a population of 19 million, one of every four people is a soldier. It also spends a staggering 25 percent of its gross national product on defense.
The South has 600,000 soldiers and 3 million reserves backed by 40,000 American troops and airmen.
Intelligence reports show the North has rapidly stepped up its ground strike capability with armored regiments, personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery and has reverse-engineered a version of the Soviet T-62 tank.
It also has dug hundreds of storage tunnels close to the DMZ to conceal munitions for an attack force. There are also the three 'attack tunnels' found burrowed under the DMZ, through which advance units could move during an invasion. U.S. officials believe there may be up to 20 more.
All that has made the North's motives unclear when Pyongyang appears to pursue the parallel goal of reconciliation, as it has in the past year.
The watershed came in September 1984, when Seoul accepted the North's offer of relief goods to victims of disastrous flooding in the South. There since have been four rounds of economic talks and Red Cross talks on reuniting families divided since the war.
In September, groups of private citizens from each side made unprecedented visits to the other to meet relatives they had not seen in 30 years.
In July, North Korean officials at Panmunjom also proposed steps to reduce tension in the DMZ. The senior U.S. delegate called it the 'first constructive proposal' they ever submitted.
But at the same time, along with its military moves, Pyongyang has stuck to a demand that it co-host the 1988 Seoul Olympics and has repeatedly threatened an East bloc boycott if it is refused. Although a boycott is unlikely, talks between North and South Olympic committees have proved fruitless.
'We just don't know what they want,' said a Western diplomat in Seoul. 'The South Koreans of course are very cynical and skeptical. But they appear to be determined to go ahead with a good faith effort.'
Military officials say they also are puzzled about Kim Il Sung's planned transfer of power to his son, Kim Jong Il, and whether the younger man -- not knowing first-hand the grim reality of the Korean war and anxious to exert control over his generals -- will be tempted to invade.
'It's difficult to read the North, and that's why the status of the talks have no impact up here,' the American colonel said in the DMZ. 'It's difficult to pick up signs of what they're going to do. It's purely illogical.'
There is evidence for his assertion.
Less than a mile across the DMZ, the North has built a modern village under a huge, 525-foot flagpole to show how good life is. But observers have noted that the village lights all switch on and off at the same times, and U.N. officials say no one lives there.
From the town, which U.S. soldiers have dubbed 'Propaganda Village,' the North Korean daily broadcasts can reach the ears of only one group of South Koreans -- residents of Tae Song Dong, the only civilian village in the DMZ.
But Tae Song Dong, so-called 'Freedom Village,' is maintained as something of a showpiece as well, and its residents are given financial benefits by the government to live there. They are hardly candidates for defection.
Even a simple invitation is oddly askew.
The North Koreans have laid out a huge sign on a hill facing Guardpost Ouellette inexplicably misspelled: 'Weicome to North Korea.' An American battalion commander said he has sent them several letters suggesting it be fixed, but has never received an answer.