Jeffrey Miller

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Tag: Bridge of No Return

All Along the DMZ — Part IV

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.

Panmunjom031“How would you like to fly up to the JSA with CNN?”

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.

“Excuse me?”

“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.

Crew_Chief__Pave_Hawk_2001We 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.

74046421RTHAJj_fsNext, 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.

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All Along the DMZ — Part III

MDLThis is Part III of a five-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired by Barry Lancet’s The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about “the scariest place on the earth.”

Did someone say road trip to the DMZ?

That’s what happened in August 2000 when I was invited back to the JSA, this time from the kind generals of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) Major General Adrien Evequoz, head of the Swiss delegation and Major General Peter Hammarstrom of the Swedish delegation.

They were impressed with my article on the JSA that I had written earlier in the summer and invited me to visit their camp just yards away from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).

The NNSC was one of the three bodies created by the Armistice Agreement at the end of the Korean War in 1953. In accordance with the Armistice Agreement, the NNSC consisted of four neutral nations: Sweden (although Sweden had provided medical assistance with a hospital in Busan it was still considered neutral) and Switzerland in the South, and Poland and Czechoslovakia in the North. Their role, as stipulated in the armistice was to supervise, observe, as well as inspect two specific dispositions of the agreement: the reinforcement of military personnel and the reinforcement of combat aircraft, vehicles, and munitions.Panmunjom012

Originally, six neutral countries were proposed. In addition to Sweden and Switzerland in the South, Norway was the other country proposed. Besides Poland and Czechoslovakia in the North, Russia was the third country proposed. However, Russia did not qualify as a credible “neutral” country, so Norway was dropped and four nations became the NNSC.

Although their duties are “limited” their presence along the DMZ reminds one that the Korean War didn’t end with an armistice and that the two Koreas are still technically at war.

Later that year, I went back to the JSA again, this time to do a story about American troops serving at Camp Bonifas. It was a nice Christmas story and the soldiers I interviewed were happy to talk about serving in the JSA although they were feeling homesick at this time of the year.

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The USO Cookie Train visits the JSA. Wonder what the Norks thought about Santa Claus.

 

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ROK Ready: Two ROK soldiers inside the MAC building. Notice their taekwondo stance.

 

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The Bridge of No Return on a cold, dreary December morning.

 

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The highlight of this trip was being allowed to get out of the United Nations Command vehicle and walk out onto the bridge.

All Along the DMZ — Part II

73396520knZKAv_fsThis 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.

The bridge on the left used to be the way to Camp Bonifas; the bridge on the left had been destroyed during the Korean War.

 

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.

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Lt. Colonel William Miller, JSA Commander

“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.

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 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.

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It’s all about intimidation in the JSA. I think the ROK soldier eyeballing the two North Korean soldiers has the advantage.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — The Bridge of No Return, Joint Security Area (JSA)

Reading about President Obama’s visit to the JSA and OP Ouellette this past weekend, reminded me of all the times I’ve been to the JSA/Panmunjom.

My first time was on December 31, 1996, the day after the bodies of North Korean commandos, who had been killed in a firefight with South Korean troops (many also committed suicide) were repatriated to North Korea through Panmunjom. These commandos were aboard a submarine which had run aground near Kangnung in September.

Standing there on that cold, damp winter day as I looked out across the windswept landscape toward the site of the 1976 Panmunjom Ax Murders and the Bridge of No Return made me feel as though I had just stepped into a Cold War thriller by Tom Clancy.

Just think how many U.S. Presidents have gone there and gazed out across the desolate, cold landscape while being stared down by North Koreans on the other side. In that time, two North Korean leaders have come and gone.

The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and yet this last bastion of the Cold War, where an armistice was signed nearly 60 years that halted the Korean War, remains.

It is a scary place.

Picture of the Day: The Bridge of No Return

In December 2000, while writing a news story “Christmas in the JSA” I got which amounted to a VIP tour of the JSA (Joint Security Area) and the chance to take this photo of the Bridge of No Return.

It was across this bridge in 1953 that POWS were repatriated at the end of the Korean War. In December 1968, the crew of the USS Pueblo were also repatriated across this same bridge.

This photo exudes a Cold War feeling.

1968: The USS Pueblo Incident

USS Pueblo

I have always been interested in history ever since I was a young boy reading books at the public library in Oglesby, Illinois.

I would go on to minor in history at Eureka College (1985-1987) and later, when I came to Korea I really got to experience history covering Korean War Commemoration events as well as writing about other events like the 25th anniversary of the 1976 Panmunjom Ax Murder Incident. 

Looking back, I would have to say that it was 1968 when I really became aware of history and what was happening around the world. There’s no doubt about, 1968 was a historical watershed year from the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy to the Democratic Convention in Chicago and Apollo 8’s flyby of the moon on Christmas Eve. 

And then there was the USS Pueblo Incident. 

It was forty years ago today that the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea after she had allegedly strayed into North Korean territorial waters. For the next eleven months the crew would be held captive until being released on December 23. 

I vaguely remember hearing about this on the news back in January of 1968; then again with the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive in the early part of the year, it might have been hard for a ten-year-old to fully grasp what was happening in another Asian country halfway around the world.  

However, it would be a few more years before I knew more about the incident. Thanks to a made-for-TV movie of the incident staring Hal Holbrook as Cmdr. Lloyd Boucher many people also learned of the incident and the “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign” the crew members flashed whenever propaganda photos were taken of them in captivity. 

What I have always found interesting about the Pueblo incident was that right before she was captured, North Korean commandos attacked the Blue House in Seoul in an attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee. Additionally, the ship which is a tourist attraction in Pyongyang is still listed as a commissioned ship by the U.S. Navy. 

My own personal connection with the incident, albeit a journalism one, occurred in the summer of 2000 when I wrote an article about the Joint Security Area (JSA) and the Bridge of No Return where Korean War POW’s were repatriated across as well as members of the USS Pueblo (both of which were mentioned in that article and another one I would write two years later). 

And a few years later, my interest in the incident was renewed when I reviewed The Pueblo Incident: A Spy Ship and the Failure of American Foreign Policy by Mitchell Lerner for my weekly book review for the Korea Times. I thought the book was okay in that the author wanted to explore the Soviet Union connection with the Pueblo incident. 

Perhaps one day the USS Pueblo will be allowed to return home again.

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