Tension-filled 10 minutes in North Korea
PANMUNJOM, South Korea – My wife and I have just returned from North Korea.
Our visit to this communist land of tyranny and oppression lasted about 10 minutes.
Our adventure began in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, when we headed north towards Panmunjom, a village that lies astride the North Korean-South Korean border, where the United Nations-brokered armistice that ended the Korean War was signed on July 27, 1953.
More than 5 million Americans served in uniform on the side of South Korea during that three-year conflict, and of these, 33,667 were killed and 103,284 were wounded. Many more are still missing in action.
Although an uneasy truce between the two Koreas has been in effect for 61 years since the signing of the armistice, the nations are still technically at war.
During our 35-mile journey here, we saw pillboxes, tank traps, towering observation posts and huge blocks of concrete on both sides of the razor wire-topped chain link fence and the 2-mile- wide heavily-mined Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that run along the 115-mile- long east-west border that separate North and South Korea.
Thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops and their tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces are in place on the South Korean side of the DMZ and throughout the nation. On the North Korean side, there is also an awesome military presence bolstered by an ever-growing nuclear missile arsenal.
As our van reached the outskirts of Panmunjom truce village, it made several stops at military checkpoints, where armed U.S. and South Korean soldiers came aboard to inspect our passports and documents that authorized us to enter the Panmunjom compound.
Our civilian driver was replaced by a U.S. Army sergeant, who handed us United Nations Visitor Declaration Form 551-1, which we were required to sign and date, that acknowledged we were entering a “hostile area” and were facing “the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”
The U.N. form also warned that we must “remain calm should any incident occur” and “follow the instructions issued by the security personnel.”
And the form warned us against “fraternization, including speaking, making gestures or associating with personnel from the North Korean People’s Army, or point, make gestures or expressions like scoffing or abnormal actions which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda material against the United Nations Command.”
Ludie and I also were given the once- over… to make sure that we were not wearing blue jeans, clothes with holes, “sports shoes” and “hippie” or long, unkempt hair that are banned for visitors.
Arriving at the Panmunjom U.N. site, we came upon a cluster of light-blue buildings (the color of the U.N. flag) that lie on the South Korean side. On the North Korean side are several nondescript barracks, office buildings and a massive, gray, Soviet-style North Korean military headquarters building.
When I raised my camera to photograph the North Korean soldiers guarding the headquarters entrance, they ran inside.
We then were ushered into a one-story United Nations structure, also light-blue, and taken to Conference Room T-3, where U.N. officials and representatives of the U.S. and North and South Korea hold periodic truce-related meetings, as required by the 1953 armistice agreement.
In the center of the conference room, half of which is in South Korea and half in North Korea, lay a long, rectangular, dark wooden table surrounded by chairs. The south side of the table was guarded by a South Korean soldier wearing wrap-around dark glasses. A North Korean soldier usually guards the north side, but he stepped outside when Ludie and I and others entered the room.
At the head of the table was a microphone, its cord, which stretched along the table’s length, designating the dividing line between the two Koreas.
I was permitted to photograph the table and guard from the South Korean side, but, on impulse, I handed my camera to another visitor and Ludie and I sprinted over to the North Korean side. We were in North Korea! We hade entered the world’s notorious pariah state!
The man to whom I had handed my camera took several photos of Ludie and me at the table. One appears with this column today.
Our minders were not amused, and they ordered the Henleys back to the table’s South Korean side. But we managed to stay in the north for several more minutes, walking back and forth around the room and peering out the windows to see a North Korean major and two captains scowling at us.
When we returned to the South Korean side, I was told by a U.N. official, “You could have caused trouble. Do you see that door on the North Korean side of this room? That’s called the ‘Door of No Return.’ You were standing a few feet from that door. The North Korean soldiers could have snatched you alone, or you and your wife!’
Ludie and I had no desire in being “snatched,” and were relieved to have returned to civilization safe and sound.
Following our visit to North Korea, we had a snack at the U.N. café and were driven back to Seoul, a trip that lasted about an hour.
The Korean conflict is long over, but in Panmunjom, the Cold War’s last frontier, it felt like we were in the thick of long-standing international tension, hostility and danger that won’t end anytime soon.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.