This is Part IV of a five-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired by Barry Lancet’s geopolitical thriller, The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about the DMZ and JSA.
This originally appeared in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm.
It was in May 2001, when one of the public affairs officers for the 8th Army asked me if I would like to accompany CNN to Camp Casey.
“We’ve invited a lot of media to cover the beret changing ceremony,” he continued. “You’ll be flying up there with Sohn Jie-ae, CNN’s Seoul Bureau Chief and a photographer from Reuters. Afterward, you’ll fly to the JSA.”
On June 14, 2001, U.S. soldiers serving in South Korea would be the first ones to wear the new black berets that the Army adopted. In commemoration of this event, and no less in part of the significance of the U.S. military still having a strong presence in Korea, USFK arranged for a lot of media coverage of this event for major U.S. networks and other news agencies.
Another helicopter ride, I thought. If you are going to the place President Bill Clinton called, “the scariest place in the world” flying into the JSA in a Blackhawk was a grim reminder of the tensions that have existed on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. And if you wanted to talk about traveling in style, not to mention excitement, it would be another ride of a lifetime.
We were supposed to fly from Seoul to Camp Casey, home to the U.S. Second Infantry Division, where we would cover the “Beret Ceremony” before proceeding to Camp Bonifas. However, inclement weather prevented us from flying, so we had to take a van to Casey, which is located in Tongduchon, about two hours north of Seoul.
So, there we all were—Sohn Ji-ae and her crew of three, a photographer from Reuters, a public affairs official, and myself—squeezed into the van. It was still dark when we left Yongsan, the sprawling military base in Seoul, and there wasn’t too much chitchat on the way up. When the weather improved later that morning after the ceremony we were allowed to fly into Bonifas.
Upon arriving at Camp Bonifas, we were met by Lt. Colonel William Miller, the JSA Commander who took us on a private tour. Many people are not aware that the Panmunjom—at least what is open for tours—is not the Panmunjom where the armistice halting the Korean War was signed in July 1953. That area is north of the JSA in North Korea. However, the area itself including the JSA is referred to as Panmunjom.
First, there was a stop at OP (Outpost) Ouellette, which is only open to dignitaries like presidents and other VIPs. (If President Trump had not canceled his trip to the DMZ to meet South Korean President Moon, this was where they most likely would have gone). Named after Private First Class Joseph R. Ouellette, who was killed during the Korean War at the Busan Perimeter in September 1950 (and awarded the Medal of Honor), it was the northernmost U.S. military outpost on the Korean peninsula (since then, most of the outpost duties have been turned over to South Korea). It was a warm, sunny day—nice weather for Korea at this time of the year before the arrival of changma, or the rainy season. However, don’t let the weather fool you; this is the DMZ and every day is eerie and foreboding.
In the distance, distinguishable in the haze and glare was a North Korean outpost. No sooner had we arrived and toured the facilities, two NPA soldiers with binoculars appeared and kept us in their sights as we were briefed on OP Ouellette’s purpose and Ms. Sohn interviewed some soldiers.
Next, it was down to the heart of the JSA and Conference Row—more like the centerpiece of the JSA and one of the highlights of any civilian tour. Here you can actually get within spitting distance of the “enemy” as it were when you enter one of the blue MAC buildings where meetings between the two sides take place from time to time. Interesting to note, prior to the 1976 Panmunjom ax murders, US, South Korean, and North Korean soldiers could “wander” anywhere in the JSA. The concrete marker between the buildings? That’s the line you cannot cross.
Finally, we stopped at the Bridge of No Return. Enough said. There, Sohn Jie-ae conducted an interview with two soldiers.
I wasn’t going to be writing a story that day. Having jumped at the chance for a helicopter ride into the JSA, another reporter would be covering the beret changing main event, which took place on Knight Field located inside Yongsan. I was just along for the ride—and what a ride it was. After the interviews, it was back on the Blackhawk for the flight back to Seoul. I’ll never forget flying out of Bonifas and over the Imjin River. That was exciting and something that I will never forget.