A thick yellow line runs down the center of the room, across the table. The walls are pale-blue. There is a single telephone that does not ring. It is black, clunky, decades old. A North Korean soldier tramps through the flowerbed outside. He presses his face to the widow, taps the glass, squints, looks me in the eye.
No one told me it was going to be like this.
It’s the second week of September, 1997. I’m living in Songtan, South Korea near Osan, an American air base. I traveled north by city bus — 25 miles to Seoul, another 35 to the DMZ. I ate breakfast at the Songtan bus depot. Fish head soup and vending machine Nescafé.
I read Time on the bus. Lady Di’s face is on the cover. The car accident was last week. Time runs a 20-page spread. There are also a few lines about Mother Teresa, who also died.
Back to the pale-blue conference room, the yellow line, the black phone. The room is one of several along Conference Row in the Joint Security Area. United Nations Command (UNC) forces meet here. The yellow MDL — Military Demarcation Line — tells us whose side is whose. The silent phone is a direct line to Panmunjom. When North Korea is ready to sit down and talk, it will ring.
Why am I here? I teach for a fifth-rate American university with campuses scattered across the world. Today, I’m a tourist visiting the world’s most heavily armed border. I believe contraindicated is the salient word. A dangerous madman, I’m told, rules the Communist regime three inches to the north. I don’t know if this is true, though I do suspect that his personal stylist is not entirely well-adjusted. We are warned not to do anything stupid. A few weeks before, an American wore a t-shirt emblazoned with an obscene message. Now he is featured on North Korean TV, every hour, grist for the State’s perpetual propaganda machine. The West is corrupt, stupid, vulgar, lewd. Capitalism is a decadent and unsuccessful economic model.
But why are we here? In August 1945 the Japanese surrendered to Allied Forces and their occupation of Korea came to an end. A boundary between the Soviet and American zones was formed at the 38th parallel, which cuts the peninsula in half. Three years later this became the border between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — which, given its totalitarian rule, is either a cruel irony or mistranslation — and the Republic of Korea. In 1950, after several border skirmishes, the North Korean Army invaded the South. This led to a UN resolution against the attack, deployment of UN troops, and eventually the Korean War. The UN established the MDL and swaddled it within a Demilitarized Zone to prevent, or at least to diminish, further aggression.
In the distance, I see a chain-link fence with razor wire separating the two Koreas. This is the DMZ. The land is dry, hard, craggy. Small-scale farming persists, on both sides. Quiet plots of garlic and ginseng squat beneath burlap tarps. Cranes fly overhead. North Korean soldiers, perching on raised wooden guard posts, scan the area with binoculars. There is livestock, in clusters of two or three, and minefields. In the middle of all this sits an unoccupied hamlet. They call it Freedom Village. We call it Propaganda Village. Anyone may live here at no cost. North Korean-friendly sermons are broadcast by loudspeaker 24 hours a day.
Much closer — outside the window, wandering the grounds — North Koreans carry assault rifles, which they seem prepared and quite willing to use. They are not slung like purses across the shoulder; they are firmly grasped and pointed forward. The Type 56 model is popular, an AK-47 knock-off produced in China. So is the Norinco CQ, a Chinese version of our M16. There are other rifles and pistols made in North Korea, Russia, Europe. The soldiers are vigilant, tense and young; their weapons are elderly.
I need a smoke. I step outside the conference room to light an Omar Sharif. The box says: The taste of my cigarettes is very smooth, soft & sensual, just like my romantic life. I don’t know where this brand is manufactured or what to make of its allusive slogan. I bought the pack from a toll booth-sized bodega outside the base.
Image via Flickr
Camp Bonifas is a UNC post, formerly known as Camp Kitty Hawk. Lying within the Joint Security Area, it is served by US and South Korean military, UN security forces, and the Neutral Nation Monitors at Camp Swiss-Swede. It was renamed in 1986 after the Poplar Tree Incident. Here’s what happened.
In the southwest corner of the Joint Security Area, near the Bridge of No Return — which crosses the Sachon River into North Korea — a poplar tree was blocking the view from an observation post. North Korea had made several attempts to grab UNC personnel and drag them across the bridge. On one occasion, they held US troops at gunpoint . A Joint Security Force, under Capt. Arthur Bonifas, was sent to rescue the Americans, which he did. After discussions with the North, it was agreed that the tree should be pruned. In August 1976 Bonifas, his ROK counterpart Capt. Kim, and others, escorted by a UN security team, set off to prune. Neither of the captains carried a weapon, due to regulations governing how many armed personnel can gather here at one time. Shortly after work began, 15 North Korean soldiers appeared. They demanded that the pruning stop because, according to them, Kim Il Sung had planted and cared for the tree himself. Capt. Bonifas told his men to continue.
A few minutes later, a North Korean truck drove over the bridge. 20 soldiers hopped out with clubs and crowbars. Capt. Bonifas told his men to continue. His North Korean counterpart, Lt. Pak Chul, removed his watch, fastidiously wrapped it in a handkerchief, and shouted “Kill the bastards!” North Korean troops seized a few of the tree axes and attacked. Capt. Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett were killed; all but one of the UNC guards was wounded. The incident was over in less than a minute.
In response to this unprovoked strike — also called the Axe Murder Incident — Operation Paul Bunyan was planned. A much larger force assembled at the poplar. Instead of trimming the branches, the tree was chopped down. The decision was made at crisis talks convened by Gerald Ford, a chief executive not celebrated for his proactive rigor.
Reflecting on these events does not make me feel any better. Against my better judgment, I don’t make a run for it. I take a deep breath — or as deep as my Omar Sharifs will allow — and close my eyes. When I open them, a North Korean soldier is staring at me. Three feet away. He is nearly unscowling, with a moderately relaxed trigger-finger. I relax.
My father was stationed here in the late-70s. Camp Greaves. I can see it from here. He was also at Camp Humphreys, an Army intelligence garrison in Pyeongtaek, not far from Songtan. I’m one of the few men in my family to reject life as a military officer. But I’m here now, in this place of axe murders and armed communists who, as they say, don’t like my way of life. I’m not just reading poetry, Dad, or books about poetry. I’m here in the shit, facing down the enemy and smoking the cigarettes of an Egyptian film actor.
The sun is going down. The North Koreans are returning home. Blue helmets walk by, on their way to the mess hall. They belong to UN Command. I see ROK forces — South Koreans, our allies. The base is littered with Quonset huts, flags, trees and dirt. Wooden placards speak in Roman and Hangul characters. There are innocuous buildings of many shapes and sizes. KATUSAs — Korean Augmentation to the United States Army — stand guard with their American colleagues.
I find my way back to the conference room to wait for a meeting that will never come. The telephone is silent. All we can do is stare across the DMZ at North Korea, while they stare right back. Hopefully, there’s nothing more to it than that.