The first time I went to Panmunjom, or the Joint Security Area was on Dec. 31, 1996. It was a cold, gray, dreary day, which almost seemed fitting for the world’s most dangerous and scariest place with all its Cold War underpinnings.
Over the next couple of years I would return to Panmunjom quite regularly for numerous articles, including this first one written in the summer of 2000 not long after the historic summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il.
Remaining Vigilant at Freedom’s Frontier
PANMUNJOM, South Korea-Between the bands of concertina wire and minefields, which stretch from coast to coast-the world’s most heavily fortified boundary-lays the area known as the JSA (Joint Security Area) and home to the “truce village” of Panmunjom.
Forty-seven years ago, Panmunjom entered global and historical significance as the scene of the armistice signing which ended the Korean War.
It was here, on July 27, 1953 that a cease-fire agreement was finally reached putting an end to the hostilities that had erupted on the Korean peninsula in 1950. Today, Panmunjom remains not only symbolic of the armistice and the end of the Korean War, but also symbolic of a divided country.
“It’s still business as usual,” remarked Lt. Col. 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 (United Nations Command) 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(Korea People’s Army) readiness on the other side,” Miller noted.
Readiness has always been the key priority for troops serving in the JSA or along the DMZ for nearly half a century. The ROK and U.S. troops who continue to guard this boundary remain vigilant at Freedom’s frontier.
Visitors to the JSA get their first taste of this vigilance (after passing through a series of checkpoints) when they espy the water tower rising above Camp Bonifas (base camp for the United Nations Security Forces in the JSA) with the message “In Front of Them All” emblazoned on its side.
Maybe that might seem a bit over the top for first time visitors here, but when you are stationed along this heavily fortified boundary, that phrase carries a different meaning. After all, the 1950-53 Korean War never really ended-only the cessation of fighting with an armistice.
From this base camp to the JSA it’s a series of checkpoints down Highway No. 1 that 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,” explained Miller. “About how great the North and Kim Jong-Il are.”
However, Miller pointed out that there seems to be less angry rhetoric these days than in the past, though. “From what the ROK soldiers have told us, there is less anti-American and anti-ROK propaganda.”
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 (Military Armistice Commission) buildings and peer out at a North Korean soldier looking in at you. (Visitors are advised not to make any gestures that could be used by the North Koreans for propaganda purposes or to say anything likewise in the room. Microphones monitor the room twenty-four hours a day.)
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 Army guide.
The ROK guards, in their frozen “ROK Ready” Taekwondo stance manifest an intimidating pose on Conference Row and in the MAC building open to tours. To serve in the JSA, you have to be the best of the best. Soldiers have to be above average height and aptitude, have a spotless military record and undergo a rigorous three-week screening period before being selected. ROK soldiers serve 26 months, U.S. soldiers, 12 months.
Today, there was an added bonus: a group of North Korean school children lined up for photographs on the northern side of the JSA.
As for the tours being run to the JSA, those too are business as usual. “We have a full block of tours every day,” said Miller. He expects over 150,000 people to visit the JSA this year, in part due to the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the start of the Korean War.
If this all seems a bit overdone or staged for propaganda purposes, then all one has to be reminded of the readiness posture that has existed in the JSA and along the DMZ since the end of the Korean War.
For nearly half a century, the name Panmunjom has not only been synonymous with the end of the Korean War, but also post-war Korea. It was here where Operation Big Switch/Little Switch repatriated POW’s across the Bridge of No Return. The sailors of the USS Pueblo (captured off the North Korean coast in 1968 and released at the end of the year) crossed the same bridge when they were returned to freedom.
However, from time to time, this state of readiness has been tested, and with it, increased tensions here on the peninsula. On Aug. 29, 1967, Camp Bonifas was the scene of a NKPA raid, which left one U.S. soldier and two ROK soldiers dead and twenty-four wounded.
In what was to become known as the “Panmunjom Ax Murder Incident,” on August 18, 1976, two U.S. officers, Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett were brutally beaten and killed by North Korean soldiers while trimming a poplar tree which blocked the view of a UNC checkpoint. Three days later as a world held their breath and watched, Operation Paul Bunyan commenced. With forces across the peninsula on heightened alert, the aircraft carrier USS Midway, B-52s, F111s, F-4s on alert as well, a task force entered the JSA to chop down the tree. Forty-five minutes later, the tree was down.
In 1984, North Korean soldiers chased a Soviet Defector into the ROK/U.S. side, which resulted in the death of an ROK soldier.
Four years ago, in April 1996, armed North Korean troops entered the JSA (for training purposes was the official explanation).
And in 1997, a twenty-three minute firefight near Chorwon broke out in the DMZ. Since then, it’s been relatively quiet.
“It’s impossible not to feel a part of history here,” said Miller on serving in the JSA. He referred not only to the history of Panmunjom and the JSA, but also the recent summit pre-talks that were held in the JSA.
“We kind of thought that Kim Dae-jung might return through Panmunjom,” Miller added with a note of resignation.
In recent years, Panmunjom has also been the site of other history making events, like the shipment of cattle to the North via the truce village in 1998.
Panmunjom has traditionally been the site for the repatriation of the remains of U.S. service members killed during the Korean War. In 1996, though, the bodies of the North Korean commandos killed during a submarine incursion were repatriated back to the North.
As for further repatriation of U.S. service member remains, Miller pointed out that the last set of remains were being directly repatriated from Pyongyang to Kadena Air Force Base, Japan.
And what about working along side of the ROK Army? Col. Miller had nothing but “praise” for the ROK soldiers, adding that it was an honor to work along side such men. “My second in command is an ROK major,” he said.
Finally, Miller added that it’s been a “great place to work.”
Despite the wave of optimism that swept that peninsula following the North-South summit in June, it’s still business as usual in the JSA. Perhaps one day, Panmunjom and the JSA will be another memorial of the cold war. For now, the concertina wire, landmines, checkpoints, and a constant state of readiness remain a reminder of the Korean War and a divided country.