Saturday, August 21, 2010

38th Parallel: Korea Demilitarized Zone

Since the 1953 armistice, the Capital of South Korea has found itself within range of quite literally 10,000 North Korean artillery tubes. To be that close, it can't take much time to travel there and in truth it doesn't. Boarding a bus from downtown Seoul, you can drive to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in about one hour, traffic dependent. So on a sunny and clear summer day, our team of five Marines boarded a bus along with soldiers, airmen and sailors for a day-long excursion to experience a series of paradoxes at one of the last standing relics of the Cold War and what endures today as the most heavily defended border in the world.

The DMZ itself reflects all the characteristics of any typical No-Man's Land: A strip of land devoid of character, loaded chock-full of mines, machine gun nests, security cameras, fields of fire and barbed wire that separates two ideologically polarized armies. 4 Km wide from the Southern to Northern Boundaries, the DMZ is heavily patrolled by soldiers whose countries continue to demonstrate one-upsmanship on a spectacular scale. Adding to that, hair-trigger tension between the two nations is at an all-time high thanks to the North's recent unprovoked torpedoing of the Cheonan and other ensuing events generating a mild feeling of anxiety as you approach. US and Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers constantly prowl the border, tasked with ensuring no repeat of a 1950 North Korean invasion catches anyone by surprise. Actually in some way, shape or form that's what our team is doing on this hot, humid Peninsula as well.

As we draw in on the DMZ the first stop is Camp Bonifas, named after a US Army Captain and UN Command team member axed to death by crazy North Korean guards as they supervised the cutting down of a Yellow Poplar in August 1976. At it's peak, the United States Army occupied this US installation with over 11,000 personnel that daily patrolled the DMZ. While the overall number of border guards remains the same, the US contingent has dwindled down and that responsibility now falls almost entirely with ROK forces.

The first thing I notice is the state of disrepair of what was once a Tip of the Spear facility. During their tour of duty, soldiers lived here under immediate daily threat of an occasional rifle shot aimed in their general direction and greater looming danger of a major, coordinated North Korean attack. In it's heyday, Camp Bonifas was visited by Ronald Reagan and other Cold War dignitaries in a show of force. Now, upkeep of the base has made Bonifas look more like it was hit hard under one of the mid-90s Base Realignment & Closure (BRAC) waves. Weeds peek through cracks in the pavement, fences criss-cross whole areas, and 1960-era shelters are in desperate need of a paint job (or tear-down).

Everyone signs a waiver stating that "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action," so it is hard to imagine why this site looks like a run down time capsule. We don't spend much time on Bonifas, but did get a chance to receive a quick orientation on the history of the base and border which proves educational and also helps provide some situational awareness when we are actually on the DMZ and peering in to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), just over the hill.

Transiting north from Camp Bonifas we immediately pass the 2km Southern Boundary of the DMZ, immediately apparent thanks to an over sized vehicle barricade that a ROK soldier opens with a smart salute. Within meters, we drive through a series of large and small physical barriers that are well camouflaged, semi-camouflaged and not camouflaged at all. Given the limited number of highways that connect North and South Korea, US/ROK forces have designed many of these to block the arteries with preset explosives should the need arise.

We learn that this isn't meant as anything more than a delay tactic and these barriers exist all the way down to Seoul. If each feature delays a DPRK attack by 15 minutes, then Seoul has bought another few hours before enemy forces roll downtown, aiding in defensive preparations and allowing citizens a few more precious minutes to evacuate. Two sets of 20-foot high fences riddled with triple-strand concertina separate a gravelly minefield. I'm still not sure if that ROK salute was more of a send-off than military courtesy, but either way it was a nice formality given what we then crossed through en route to the actual border.

Side roads zig-zag through the Southern Boundary and before long, we arrive at Checkpoint Charlie- the final US checkpoint before entering the United Nations Panmunjom Peace Talk facility. From here, there is nothing separating us from North Korea but two buildings, a parking lot and a whole lot of attitude. We hear a story about a Soviet citizen that made a mad dash across the border in 1984 defection attempt, making it as far as the parking lot immediately north of Checkpoint Charlie. North Korean border guards crossed in pursuit, and a 40 minute fire fight erupted inside of South Korea. The citizen was ultimately protected and the attack was repelled thanks to the Quick Reaction Force called out of Bonifas but in the end, one South Korean and three North Koreans were killed with a handful of soldiers wounded on both sides.

Once given the all-clear, we are escorted in a formalized column up through the Peace Building and out on to a concrete platform that overlooks the border and a series of buildings painted in distinct United Nations blue. Nondescript concrete blocks straddling ranch style facilities identify the true border while the main administration buildings of the North and South stand off with imposing, several story facilities that are largely open inside and unoccupied. The Peace Building on the ROK side was built specifically to hold ongoing talks between the two sides but given the lack of meetings in today's climate, it is solely used by groundskeepers to get out of the sun at lunchtime. Since the Cheonan sinking, there has been only one set of talks between nations. Fittingly enough, the only agreement coming out of that meeting was.. that the countries should have more talks.

A stare-down of sorts evolves over the course of the day. Two ROK guards outfitted with black aviator sunglasses and pit helmets face the DPRK and stand at a position of modified attention while half protected by the buildings themselves. All these soldiers must have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do or Judo and must be a minimum of 177cm tall in order to intimidate the North's guards. They do a good number on me, so I'm sure the DPRK don't take them lightly. On the north, two stone-faced soldiers stare on through binoculars while another snaps pictures of our group thereby placing us on Kim Jong Il's Enemy of the State list. We are told that these individuals are among the most well-fed of all North Koreans in order to allow them to maintain their own version of intimidation and "face".

The UN Command Armistice Conference Building is a single room facility housed with nothing other than desks and chairs. We learn that flags used to be in the room until one day after a negotiation, the UN team looked in the windows and saw DPRK soldiers rubbing their asses/ crotches with the US and ROK flags. Seriously. Both sides also kept bringing in larger and larger flags (my flag is bigger than yours) until a separate session was needed solely to discuss flag sizes in the conference room. All of this ultimately led to an agreement to just leave flags out altogether. There are two other things in the room, though- ROK soldiers who are essentially there for our protection and to guard a door that leads in to North Korea proper.

This door is a bit of a concern. A few years ago, a DPRK soldier had hidden on the other side of the door and when the ROK soldier unlocked it, the DPRK soldier reached through, grabbed his hand and attempted unsuccessfully to pull him kicking and screaming in to North Korea. As a result, a second lock was installed and the second soldier stationed in the room. When this particular door is now closed the second soldier braces himself against the wall (hence the clearly visible rub marks) and holds on to the utility belt of the first soldier, who then unlocks/ locks both deadbolts in the door quickly before backing off and egressing the building.

From there, we head a short distance to Checkpoint 3- a guard house surrounded on three sides by North Korea and some heavily populated minefields. Across the treeline, a DPRK checkpoint is clearly visible along with speaker towers that blare propaganda into the south. Located on a hill, this checkpoint provides sweeping views of the mountainous area to the north and some interesting history as well. From here, the site of Capt Bonifas' murder, the Bridge to Nowhere, the site of the 1953 armistice signing, and also Propaganda Village are clearly visible.

Minefields, camera arrays, sensors and alarms are everywhere as far as the eye can see. Some are easy to identify thanks to signs, some are more hidden by shrubs and grasslands. But the border is so well entrenched that one quick glance at any of the border stakes riddling the area quickly brings awareness that mines and other nasty pieces of equipment that would put a serious dent in your social life are only a few steps away. At several points on the trip, we comment to each other: What would you do if you ended up finding yourself inside North Korea and were trying to get out? Just even trying to figure out how to cut across this seemingly impregnable line is mind boggling.

Would you go for it? Try to make your way to the coast? Head north for China? All that we see is a blaring reminder of one Golden Rule of the DMZ: While walking around, under no circumstances should you leave the path.

From Checkpoint 3 and at several points along the border, the absolutely ridiculous Propaganda Village comes into view. Adjacent to the North Korean border city of Kaesong, this "village" was actually erected in an effort to show South Koreans all the prosperity and exciting ways of the North. Speakers broadcast music and propaganda designed to convince people to defect to the North. Never mind that other than a handful of settlers and border guards, South Koreans are forbidden from entering the Southern Boundary and therefore wouldn't see Propaganda Village with their own eyes. But even if they did, what would they think? Sure, you will always get some schmo that might buy into the whole cockamamie ploy and absurdity. But the village is deserted and made like that movie set Wild West town that Gene Wilder blew up in the movie "Blazing Saddles". We learn that at night, US guards have noticed that lights shining through windows were brighter at the top floor and became successively dimmer going toward the ground. Buildings are a facade- plywood multi-story replicas completely hollow inside. Through high power binoculars we notice no movement in the village other than two DPRK guards walking lazily to their post, so it would seem that even the North knows that the South is on to them but keep up the game anyway.

Propaganda Village is also the site of one of the most evident and peculiar pieces of one-up-man-ship going on cross-border. Many years ago, the South Koreans had erected a flagpole which was clearly visible from the north. The North Koreans then promptly responded in-kind, raising a conspicuously taller flagpole. Not to be out done, the South Koreans then built a flagpole that is 100m tall and stands prominently above the surrounding treeline. The North Koreans then immediately followed with giant F-You by one erecting one that stands 170m in height- the tallest flagpole in the world. The North Korean flag is so large that it takes 11 people to raise/lower it, and weighs close to 600lbs. The South said "wow, you guys are doofuses" and that's where it stands today. If they didn't say that, they sure should have.

I read that over 750 overt acts of violence have been registered on the North/South Korea DMZ, not even counting the shoving/ rude gestures/ fistfights that have erupted. One of the craziest examples of this occurred on August 18, 1976 when Capt Bonifas and 1stLt Barrett led a working party contingent to trim a tree that blocked the view of Checkpoint 3 from Checkpoint 2. Once on site, the working party found themselves surrounded by a large number of DPRK guards who became increasingly hostile. Unprovoked, the DPRK attacked the UN team, mauling Capt Bonifas with his own axe. A few weeks later, Operation Paul Bunyan was executed- in what shows true tension of the Korean Peninsula, a large team of Special Forces cut the thing down while an entire Carrier Battle Group was positioned in the Sea of Japan, bomber and fighter squadrons were put in the air and US forces regionally were put on high alert in a massive show of force. In the end, the tree came down.

Maybe it's because of how crazy this part of the world is. Maybe it's a combination of both those reasons coupled with others, but for whatever it's worth there are some funny and very different parts of this border that contradict all the barbed wire and explosives that are literally feet from a tourist attraction. The border town of Imjingak is just one of those examples. Where else can someone spend time staring across the DMZ with binoculars, walk by a locomotive that was shot up back in 1950 and then go spend the rest of the day eating Korean BBQ, shopping for chotchkies and riding Super Viking? Some things make sense, some don't. Standing next to a camouflaged building that is home to one a border guard team known as the "N1CE" unit, I am strictly instructed to not take pictures in front of a yellow line.. that is literally ten feet from a wall that houses a phalanx of binoculars requiring 500 Won to operate. What that ten feet did for anyone or OpSec is beyond me, but they meant business and were enforcing that rule with gusto.

Simply because they are crazy, the North Koreans decided that it would be a good idea to dig infiltration tunnels into the south and over time and thanks to actionable intelligenge the south has discovered four of these spanning back to the mid-70s. Some are larger than others, some are more advanced than others. But 3rd Tunnel is reputed to be capable of allowing 30,000 North Korean soldiers in to South Korea/ hour, so when the South Koreans finally learned of it they spent no time cutting it off and building in barricades to ensure no-one is able to slip through. So what else did the South Koreans do? Turned it into a tourist attraction. Following a 350m walkway down into the guts of the earth, you feel the temperature bleed off and humidity jump. The tunnel itself is nothing more than a rocky crawlspace that is likely perfectly high enough for your average North Korean soldier, but requires American Marines to hunch over while walking. Water drips everywhere. Drill points are highlighted to show that this tunnel was clearly drilled out in a southerly direction. Almost laughably, we learn that when the tunnel was discovered a team from the north painted the sides with coal paste in order to make the argument that the tunnel was a coal mine that originated in the south. Hard to explain how coal paste covering granite makes sense, but it must have been a last minute ditch excuse that someone concocted on the fly.

All in all, a unique experience. All of this reminds me of a teammate at IBM named Chuck Adams. In a former life, he worked at the Pentagon on his twilight Army tour in an obscure office like "Department of the Army, Assistant Logistics and Transformation Office". Essentially a low level office that had little to no access to classified materials. One of his coworkers was a crabby, antisocial Paraplegic woman who wouldn't meet with anyone and spent more time at doctors appointments than she did in the office. Anyone who knows about Federal Service jobs knows that it almost takes an Act of God to fire someone, so they allowed her to continue doing what she did, on her own time. One day, Chuck walks in to the office and finds dust all over his desk. He looks up, and sees the face of a worker in the ceiling who then goes on to tell Chuck that the Pentagon is in the process of network upgrades and it's his turn to have CAT-5 cabling installed. Six weeks pass. Chuck again walks in the office, and finds out that the paraplegic woman has been arrested. For spying for North Korea. Apparently, that's the best that they can afford, which is sort of funny and sort of sad.

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1 comment:

Zack said...

Still feel like a d-bag for missing this trip!!