Friday, May 16, 2014

Chrysallization, Part 1

Panmunjom, Demilitarized Zone, Korean Peninsula.

When I was 16, I traveled to the Far East for 5 weeks, visiting China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. The following short story recounts the experience we had when we had the opportunity to visit the Demilitarized Zone. I will break the story up into several successive posts here on the blog.

Chrysallization, Part 1

I remember the day I truly became an adult.

No, it’s not what you’re thinking. I didn’t lose my virginity, or take my first drink, or move out on my own: those events actually all seem trivial in comparison to the transformation that occurred that day.

It was 1983, and I was only sixteen. It was a bright, hot, July day, with temperatures in the high eighties and even higher humidity, so I was dressed in a brightly colored sundress and a light white sweater. And we were about to enter the Demilitarized Zone on
the Korean Peninsula.

Our group of 57 high school singers and 6 chaperones was lively as we entered the auditorium where we were to have our next orientation session. Already in the third week of touring the Far East, travelling through Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and now South Korea, we were pros at being “oriented.” There was laughter and boisterous conversation as we casually took our seats, anxious for the program to be over so we could be on our way to the “real stuff.” We had arrived at the UN Security Forces forward base named Camp Bonifas.

The room darkened, as the slide projector warmed up in the background. Two U.S. military personnel appeared in the beam of light at the front of the room, commanding our attention and ushering us into silence without a single word. The first, a U.S. Army Major, stepped forward and said “Welcome to the DMZ. I’m Major Willis, and this is Sergeant Carter. Before we board the bus and actually take you up to the zone itself, we have some information to share with you, and there are waivers that will need to be signed by each of you.”

“Waivers?” I thought. “hmmm. Wonder what that’s all about?” I shrugged my shoulders and leaned back in my chair, feeling tired and clammy in the air conditioned darkness after the hot humid air outside.

I looked around at our group, and noticed that most of my companions were also exhibiting this same mild curiosity about the Major’s words.

Soon, images began to flash on the screen. The presentation began with a brief history of the Korean Conflict, fought between 1950 and 1953, which ended essentially in a stalemate. The Korean War was the first test of the new United Nations, created at the end of World War II, and it would also be the first armed conflict of the Cold War era. The battle between communism and capitalism, the free and slave worlds, was about to commence, and would rage for over forty years across the globe, fought in political, economic, social, and ideological arenas.

Most of this was not news to me. I had taken a particularly good history course that year, and covered the 20th century well. I loved history. The rest of the group was restless, however, exhibiting signs of disinterest in this history lesson, events that seemed like ancient happenings to the group of teenagers. A low murmur spread through the room as side conversations began.

“Can we focus, please?” our group leader and director, Dr. Morris Hayes demanded, spreading an evil eye over the room. “Settle down and listen up!” Properly chastened, the choir members were silenced once again, and attention returned to the Major and his slide show.

Major Willis then continued his presentation, explaining that the American participation was crucial to the Korean conflict, and ultimately, the U.S., UN, and South Korean forces would remain a steady, peacekeeping force in the neutral boundary that was established along the de facto border between the two warring nations of North and South Korea. Somewhat incongruously named the “Demilitarized Zone,” it is one of the world’s most highly defended borders.

The zone is 160 miles long, and approximately 2.5 miles wide, and runs along the 38th parallel, cutting the Korean peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel at an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying to its north. It was established by the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in 1953 in Panmunjom by North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations Command. This neutral zone was named the “Demilitarized Zone,” and it sat on either side of the dividing line between the two states. According to the Armistice, each side agreed to move their troops back 2,200 yards from the front line. The Military Demarcation Line goes down the center of the DMZ and indicates exactly where the front was when the agreement was signed.
I noticed that my companions seemed to be paying more attention to the Major’s presentation now. He had captured their interest.
With the next slide, Major Willis explained that as a result of the genuine hostility between the North and South, despite the theoretical peace that was signed at Panmunjom, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the line, each side guarding against potential aggression from the other side. In 1983, the United States still had 40,000 troops stationed in South Korea.
The armistice agreement explains exactly how many military personnel and what kind of weapons are allowed in the DMZ. Soldiers from both sides may patrol inside the DMZ, but they may not cross the MDL. Between 1953 and 1999, sporadic outbreaks of violence due to North Korean hostilities killed over 500 South Korean soldiers and 50 U.S. soldiers along the DMZ.

Although the Korean Conflict officially ended in 1953, to this day neither side has granted diplomatic recognition of the other, and tensions have remained high. In the 1980s, as the Cold War was sputtering its last gasps in Europe, tensions were even higher in the Pacific. Our merry little band of singers was about to enter into one of the most contentious arenas in the world, and we had no idea.

As the Major clicked through his slide presentation, filling our heads with statistics, images, and details about the history of the region, I stole a glance around the room. The whispers and snickers had disappeared, and in their wake I saw intense concentration appearing on the faces of my companions.

“What the heck are we doing here?” I wondered. “Is this even SAFE?”

Major Willis wrapped up his history lesson, and clicked on one final slide, which was an image of a waiver form. “You will each find a copy of a waiver on the desk in front of you. Please read it carefully, and then sign and date it at the bottom.” At this point, Sergeant Carter moved forward as well.

“A waiver? A waiver for what?” I mused.

A few hands tentatively rose in the air around the room. The major pointed to Rudy, an outgoing senior, seated in the front row. “Yes? You have a question?” Major Willis asked.

Rudy boomed out, “Excuse me, Major, but could you please explain why we need to sign a waiver?”

The Major cleared his throat, swiped a gaze around the room, sighed, and explained. “Because this is technically a military installation, and there are active military personnel on duty, and since the region has been the site of violence in the past, we need you to sign this waiver, saying that the U.S. government, the Korean government, and the United Nations may not be held accountable for any injuries that might befall you on your trip to the DMZ. It’s merely a formality.”

“A formality?” Rudy interrupted. “Then why must we sign? Is there a real danger to any of us?”

“We haven’t had any active conflict here for years, only a skirmish or two. You will be fine,” Major Willis assured us, nodding his head encouragingly. The Sergeant next to him matched his bob with his own.

The mood in the room had turned somber: no more giggling or carrying on. Now the Major had everyone’s full attention.

“And what if we don’t sign,” Rudy persisted.

“Then you will have to wait here while the rest of the group tours the DMZ.” Major Willis explained. “It’s that simple. Sign or stay here.”

We all looked to our chaperones for guidance, searching their faces for some inkling of what we should do. The six of them exchanged looks, then picked up their pens and signed their own forms with a flourish, signaling that we should all do the same.

I took a deep breath, re-read the form in front of me, and picked up my pen. I read:

During the period from October 1966 to 28 August 1967, 160 hostile acts were committed south of the Military Demarcation Line by the North Koreans. In addition to direct attacks against UNC military positions, these acts of violence included mining of roads, destruction of sleeping quarters, and blowing up of civilian passenger trains. One of the most vicious attacks was the machine gunning of the Military Armistice Commission Advance Camp on 28 August 1967. During this attack, three were killed and twenty-six were wounded including three Korean civilians. Your requested visit to the conference site at Panmunjom, located in the Joint Security Area (JSA) entails travel over the same route where this attack occurred. As recently as 18 August 1976, an overwhelming force of club and ax wielding North Korean guards assaulted UNC Security personnel in the JSA while they monitored a civilian tree trimming work party. In this attack, two UNC officers were beaten to death, the first to have occurred in this ‘neutral’ area. As a result of the incident, the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) has been drawn through the JSA diving it into two distinct areas.

I exhaled loudly. “Wow. This doesn’t sound good…” I continued reading.

Under mutual agreement with the Korean People’s Army/Chinese People’s Volunteers (KPA/CPV Communist Side), no military personnel are permitted entry to the side of the JSA controlled by the other side. Therefore, UNC guards cannot provide security to visitors in the JSA that are not on the UNC side of the MDL. In addition, though travel restrictions for United States citizens were lifted in April 1977, the JSA is not an authorized crossing point to enter North Korea.

At no time have any mines been detected or used in the road you must travel from Freedom Bridge to Panmunjom. It must be pointed out, however, that you will be travelling into and through a hostile area; and, although no hostile acts or incidents are anticipated, the possibility of their occurrence must be recognized.

With this in mind, the following certificate must be read and signed….

Now I felt sweat dripping down the small of my back, and my palms felt clammy. “Possibility of hostile attacks? Mines on the road? What the HECK were we doing here?”

Taking a deep breath, I continued reading the waiver itself.

I recognize that my impending visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom entails entry into a hostile area and that I am subjecting myself (and my family) to the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action. I understand that the Joins Security Area is a neutral but DIVIDED area guarded by UNC military personnel on the one side (South), and Korean People’s Army personnel on the other (NORTH). I understand, therefore, that I am NOT permitted to cross the Military Demarcation Line into the area of the Joint Security Area under control of the (NORTH) Korean People’s Army. Although incidents are not anticipated, the United Nations’ Command, the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee my (our) personal safety and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act.

I gasped audibly, looking around the room. “Wait a minute – possibility of injury or DEATH?” I started trembling; telling myself it was from the air conditioning on my sweaty skin.

Silently, one of our chaperones, Miss Hartzell, slid into the chair beside me. “Are you ok, Chris?” she asked gently.

“Are you sure this is safe? Do you really think we should be doing this?” I whispered.

“This is just a formality, really. If there is any chance of danger, our military guides will not let us go any further. We will be perfectly safe. You can sign.” She responded, nodding her head.

With one last deep breath, I grasped the pen tightly in my right hand and managed to scrawl my signature at the bottom. I thrust the signed page at Miss Hartzell, anxious to put evidence of our potential threat out of my sight.

Major Willis and Sergeant Carter moved through the auditorium, collecting the completed waiver forms. The room was unusually quiet. Everyone seemed a bit shell-shocked by the experience. The lights came on, and I could finally see my companions clearly once again. I met my friend Rich’s eyes from across the room, silently telegraphing a question through the air. “Are we ok?” He nodded slowly, but also shrugged his shoulders slightly, raising his hands questioningly.
“We will now have to break the group in half, so that you will fit on our busses. Please form two equal groups in the lobby. The chaperones, too, should divide themselves, with half of you accompanying each group.” The Major directed.

As we filed into the lobby, I skipped ahead to stand next to Rich. I definitely wanted to be with him for this experience. “Let’s try to get on Miss Hartzell’s bus,” I prompted. Miss Hartzell was my home choir director, so I felt quite close to her.
Twenty minutes later, my half of the choir group was following the Major across the parking lot to an old school bus painted in camouflage green, which was to be our transportation to the DMZ. Apparently, our two busses would be staggering their departure times, so we would not all be at the same place at the same time.

“Watch your step, everyone, as we board the bus. Sorry about the lack of luxury, but it’s the best we have for you!” The Major warned as we approached.

When I was about two feet from the bus, I stopped abruptly. I stared at the door of the bus, which still stood closed, waiting for the driver to open it and welcome us aboard. There were three bullet holes in the glass panes of the door.
“Bullet holes… in the door….” I whispered under my breath, unable to move forward. “I thought this was safe….”
Rich noticed me stop, and turned back to see what was wrong. “Chris? Why did you stop? Come on, so we can get good seats on the bus.” He grabbed my hand and tried to pull me forward, but I was frozen in place with fear.
“Rich, look at the door of the bus.”

“What are you talking about, Chris? Come on…” Rich trailed off as he turned back to the bus and finally noticed the bullet holes. “Oh, wow. Are those what I think they are?”

“Um, Major? Excuse me, Major?” I managed to blurt out, hoping to catch our leader’s attention.
The Major turned around with a quizzical glance. “Yes, what is it? We’re on a tight schedule here. Come on…”

“Major, I’m sorry, but are those BULLET HOLES on the bus?”

The Major gave a short laugh. “Oh, those. Yeah, don’t mind those. We often have used vehicles up here that have seen action. Don’t let it bother you….” He turned, gave a wave to the driver, and waited for the door to pop open. Then he hopped aboard the bus with a flourish, waving his hand for us to follow.

I looked Rich in the eye and grabbed his hand for security. “I’m glad you’re with me, Rich. I hope nothing happens.” I swallowed hard and followed Rich onto the bus, plopping down two seats behind the Major. I swung around to scan the bus behind me. I saw Miss Hartzell seated several rows back, chatting casually with Miss Knudsen, one of our other chaperones. She seemed unconcerned. I sighed and tried to relax.

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