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A Trip To Panmunjom
The Trip to Panmunjom
I visited Panmunjom twice, once in 1985 and once in 1986. These are my memories from these visits.
The bus tour started from Seoul. The trip north took us past a number obstacles designed to slow down an armored advance. The Republic of Korea is a mountainous country. The area north of Seoul to the DMZ is mostly flat and so a good place for an armored thrust from North Korea. Our first stop was Uijeongbu the headquarters of the United States 2nd Infantry Division. In the mid-80s Uijeongbu sounded familiar to many Americans, even if they didn’t know where they heard the name before. Uijeongbu was mentioned in many episodes of the long running TV series M*A*S*H. At Uijeongbu visitors were given a brief history of the Korean Conflict and some of the border incidents that happened after the ceasefire. At the time over 1,000 South Koreans and 58 Americans had been killed by North Korean truce violations and terrorism. The number of South Korean, and other nationals, killed has increased considerably since then. Visitors had to sign a waiver explaining they knew they would be entering a combat zone. They told us they hadn’t lost a tourist yet.
The next stop was Im Jin Gak. This was the closest to the border most South Korean civilians were allowed to go. At Im Jin Gak there were many monuments, including one memorial to the victims of the 1983 Rangoon bombing. In that incident North Korean agents attempted to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan . A schedule change saved President Chun but 17 South Koreans, including four cabinet ministers, and four Burmese officials died in the bomb blast. There was also a locomotive on a track pointed north. This expressed the hope the locomotive would one day be able to travel north. Somewhere in the demilitarized zone there is a locomotive stuck between North and South Korea.
The bus drove across the Im Jin River. There was a tent village for U.S. and South Korean soldiers. The bus drove into the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The DMZ looked beautiful. It is amazing how a devastated land can recover simply by being left alone.
At Panmunjom the tour guide instructed us not to point. A finger point is an insult in Korea so the North Koreans could photograph a finger pointer and use the picture for propaganda purposes. Instead “pointing” was done with an open hand. There is an observation tower opposite a North Korean building. The North Korean building is long but only a few feet wide. They took us inside a small building that was on the border. Inside the building a microphone wire marked the line between North and South Korea. A large U.S. Army MP, the U.S. had a minimum height requirement for MPs serving at Panmunjom, stood at the North Korean entrance. Here we were allowed to step across the border into North Korea. The first time I visited Panmunjom a North Korean soldier looked in on us through a window. The second time I visited it was an American MP who looked in.
A bus took us to “The Bridge of No Return”. At the end of the Korean Conflict prisoners of war were brought to this bridge. Once there prisoners had to choose if they wanted to cross the bridge. The choice was irreversible.
Next to the bridge there is the trunk of a poplar tree. On August 18, 1976 U.S. Army Captain Arthur G. Bonifas, 1st Lieutenant Mark T. Barrett, and a Republic of Korea Army officer, along with five Korean Service Corps members went to prune this poplar tree. During this operation North Korean Senior Lieutenant Pak Chul demanded the operation stop. When Captain Bonifas didn’t stop the operation Senior Lieutenant Chul ordered the detail be attacked. He personally attacked Captain Bonifas. At one point nine North Koreans had surrounded 1st Lieutenant Barrett. The North Koreans killed Captain Bonifas and 1st Lieutenant Barrett. The South Korean officer, three KATUSA[i] soldiers and four U.S. Army soldiers were wounded in the attack.[ii] The U.S. response was a large show of force and cutting the tree down to a stump with axes. The incident caused a number of changes in Panmunjom, including a U.S. quick reaction force.
An incident on November 23, 1984[iii] tested the quick reaction force. Vasily Yakovlevich Matuzok, a Russian on a North Korean tour of Panmunjom, made a break for freedom[iv]. The North Koreans went after him. KATUSA Corporal Jang Myong-ki and U.S. Army Private First Class Michael A. Burgoyne came to the defector’s aide. Corporal Jang was killed and Private Burgoyne was wounded, but they bought enough time for the quick reaction force to arrive and trap the North Koreans in an area called the Sunken Garden. The quick reaction force killed three North Korean soldiers in the fight. The North Koreans, trapped and out of ammunition, had no choice but to give up the fight.
At Panmunjom there is a small museum. The artifacts include Captain Bonifas and 1st Lieutenant Barrett’s caps and the cap of a North Korean soldier from the Matuzok defection incident.
[i] KATUSA – Korean Augmentees to the U.S. Army. These are South Korean soldiers who work alongside the U.S. Army soldiers in Korea.
[ii] Panmunjom Information (http://www.panmunjom.info/axe.htm)
[iii] U.S. Army web site (http://www.army.mil/article/48498/jsa-security-battalion-remembers-fallen-warrior/)
[iv] NY Times, DMZ Defector Says He Acted Freely, November 27, 1984 (http://www.nytimes.com/1984/11/27/world/dmz-defector-says-he-acted-freely.html)