This is Part II of a four-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired in part by Barry Lancet’s The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about the DMZ and JSA.
Summer 2000. Somehow I had talked myself into writing feature stories about the 50th anniversary of the Korean War for the Korea Times and wouldn’t you know it, for my efforts, I was given the chance to visit the JSA again, this time as a journalist where I was given the VIP treatment which included having chow with the soldiers in the Camp Bonifas mess hall and interviewing the commander, Lt. Colonel Miller right outside one of the guardhouses with the Bridge of No Return in the background.
This time I would be riding in style, one of the Korea Times staff cars (if you were in Seoul at the time you couldn’t miss those green sedans), accompanied by a driver and the photographer for the newspaper. I was fortunate at the time, teaching at Yonsei’s Foreign Language Institute because we did not have to teach on Wednesdays. This was some arrangement that used to correspond to “chapel” which was on Wednesdays meaning that there would be no English classes that day. For some reason, it became the normal schedule for the institute. When I left in 2006, we still had Wednesdays off. The reason why this was good was that on Wednesdays was when the 8th Army/USFK Public Affairs Office had the press up to the JSA. Worked out quite nicely for me and the writing that I would do from 2000-2006.
One of the reasons why I wanted to go back to the JSA was to find out if there had been more tour groups because of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. It was still business as usual:
“It’s still business as usual,” remarked Lieutenant Colonel William B. Miller, JSA commander when asked if there had been any changes in readiness following the North-South Summit in June.
This reporter caught up with the JSA Commander at one of the UNC checkpoints during a recent tour of the JSA. Miller, a native of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, has been commander of the JSA since April.
“There’s been no change in our readiness, and as much as we can tell, no change in the KPA’s readiness on the other side,” Miller noted.
Readiness has always been the key priority for troops serving in the JSA or along the DMZ. The ROK and U.S. troops who continue to guard this boundary remain vigilant at Freedom’s Frontier. From the Camp Bonifas base camp to the JSA, it’s a series of checkpoints down Highway 1, which runs through anti-tank barriers, minefields, and the concertina wire that stretches into the distance. Then there’s the propaganda, albeit the signboards (one on the right of a UNC checkpoint translated from Hangul reads “Self Reliance Is Our Way of Life”; another, on the left translated from Hangul reads, “Following the Path of the Leading Star”—in reference to Kim Il-sung. Although the anti-American and anti-ROK propaganda messages blaring from speakers from the North were reported to have stopped following the summit, they are back on again.
“There’s been a heavy influence on music recently,” Miller said, “about the greatness of the North and Kim Jong-Il.”
However, Miller pointed out that there seems to be less angry rhetoric these days than in the past.
“From what the ROK soldiers have told us, there is less anti-American and anti-ROK propaganda,” he added.
There’s always this eerie, almost surreal mood as one enters the JSA and walks out onto Conference Row. For anyone who has ever been to the JSA, it just might seem a little absurd to stand just a few feet away from the enemy or to walk into one of the MAC buildings and peer out at a North Korean soldier looking in at you. On this day, though, one tall, rather presumptuous North Korean guard crinkled up his nose in deference to a military camera crew filming him.
“He’s a bit of a troublemaker,” noted our security escort.
This originally appeared in the Korea Times, July 2000
There was an added highlight to this trip to the JSA: a group of North Korean schoolchildren on a tour.
Surreal, huh? Someone told me that the kids were either the children of party members or North Koreans living in Japan. They look pretty well-behaved in the photo.