I just finished Barry Lancet’s heart-pounding geopolitical thriller, The Spy Across the Table, and I really enjoyed the scenes which took place in and around the DMZ on the Korean peninsula. Having been there several times, both as a tourist and a feature writer for The Korea Times, I appreciate those authors writing about events on the Korean peninsula who try to incorporate the DMZ into their stories. It is an amazing, surreal place, “freedom’s final frontier” as one military PSA on USFK used to refer to it back in the 1990s. Inspired by Lancet’s book, and President Trump’s last minute unscheduled trip to the DMZ, which was scrubbed due to fog, it prompted me to share my experiences and accounts of the times I visited the DMZ.
My first trip to Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area (JSA) was on New Year’s Eve, 1996 as part of a USO tour. Interestingly, the day before I went up there, the bodies of the North Korean commandos who were killed during the submarine incursion in September of that year were repatriated to the North.
What was interesting about going on a tour was that after we listened to a presentation about the history of Panmunjom and the JSA, we had to sign a waiver which said that USFK (United States Forces Korea) was not responsible for our deaths should anything happen while we there. It wasn’t to heighten the tension either. In 1984, an East German tourist on a tour on the northern side of the JSA defected which resulted in a firefight in the JSA. One South Korean soldier was killed.
Once you leave the confines of Camp Bonifas and head north to the JSA, that’s when things get intense with the concertina wire, minefields, and anti-tank barriers. The day I went to the DMZ it was cold and dreary which added a bit of atmosphere to the tour. Here you can see the Bridge of No Return where POWs were repatriated at the end of the Korean War. It was also across this same bridge, twenty-eight years earlier, where the crew of the USS Pueblo was repatriated in December 1968. It was also where the 1976 Panmunjom ax murder incident occurred where two US officers, Capt. Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett were killed by North Korean soldiers. I was in technical training school at Lowry AFB, Colorado when this happened. Years later, when I read about the murders and the military operation to chop down the poplar tree which had blocked the blue guardhouse as well as interviewing former JSA soldiers who were stationed there at the time for an article in the Korea Times, would I realize how close we were to another war breaking out on the peninsula.
One of the highlights of the tour is the chance to walk into one of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) buildings on conference row where military and armistice related talks between both sides have taken place over the years. It’s also where you can “cross” into North Korea so you can go back home and tell everyone that you have been to North Korea. If you’re lucky while you are there, you might get to see an NPA (North Korean People’s Army) soldier peering in to see who is on tour that day.
Although the tour might seem straight out of some dystopian Disneyland with everyone going home at the end of the day, there’s a reason why Bill Clinton called this place the “scariest place on earth.” It was along the DMZ in the mid-1960s where North Korea provoked numerous border incidents which have sometimes been referred to as the second Korean War (in response to the South’s dispatch of two divisions to Vietnam as well as driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea). And from those events, it would morph into other incidents which have reminded everyone of the fragile peace which has existed on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War.