Making it back from the ‘Door of No Return’
December 23, 2014
PANMUNJOM, South Korea — My wife and I have just returned from North Korea.
Our visit to this infamous 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 ending the Korean War was signed on July 27, 1953.
More than 5.7 million Americans served in uniform on the side of South Korea during that three-year conflict, and of these, 37,667 lost their lives, 103,284 were wounded and 7,875 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.
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Thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops and their tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces, aircraft and warships are at the ready on the South Korean side of the DMZ and throughout the nation should war resume. On the North Korean side, there;s an equally 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 driver, a U.S. Army sergeant, 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 we must "remain calm should any incident occur, follow the instructions issued by the security personnel" and refrain from "speaking to, making gestures such as scoffing or associating with personnel from the North Korean Peoples' Army that could be used as propaganda material against the United Nations Command."
We were also given the once over…, to make sure we were not wearing blue jeans, clothes with holes, sports shoes, so-called hippie attire and long or unkempt hair banned for visitors as well.
Arriving at the Panmunjom U.N. site, we came upon a cluster of light-blue buildings (the color of the United Nations flag) that lie on the South Korean side of the border with North Korea. On the North Korean side are several nondescript barracks and a massive, grey Soviet-style military headquarters building. When I raised my camera to photograph the North Korean soldiers guarding the headquarters entrance, they ran inside.
Ludie and I then were ushered into the one-story United Nations headquarters and taken to Conference Room T-3, where U.N. officials and representatives of North and South Korea hold periodic truce-related meetings, as mandated by the 1953 armistice agreement.
In the corner of the room, half of which is in North Korea and half in South Korea, lay a long, rectangular 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 guarding the northern side was hastened outside when I tried to take his picture. At the head of the table was the U.N. flag and 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 a startled fellow-visitor and Ludie and I sprinted over to the North Korean side to have our photograph taken in the world's most notorious pariah state.
Our minders told us to return to the South Korean side at once, but we managed to linger in the North for about 10 minutes or so, strolling around the room and peering out the windows to see a North Korean Army major and two captains scowling at us.
When we returned to South Korea, I was admonished by a U.N. official, "You could have caused trouble.
"Do you see that door on the North Korean side of the room? That's called the 'door of no return.' You were standing just a few feet from that door. North Korean soldiers could have entered the room and snatched you or your wife or both of you."
The Henleys had no interest in being "snatched" and were relieved to have returned to civilization safe and sound.
The Korean War is long over, but in Panmunjom, the Cold War's last frontier, my wife and I 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 Lahontan Valley News.