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A Trip To Panmunjom

Updated on December 17, 2016
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At the Bridge of No Return.  In the foreground is the poplar tree that was the center of the axing incident on August 18, 1976.A North Korean flag near Panmunjom, 1985.A North Korean soldier at Panmunjom.  The Armband indicates he is on duty. 1985.North Korean visitors to Panmunjom.  1985.Building on the North Korean Side of Panmunjon.The Bridge of No Return.Memorial to the Rangoon Bombing victims, Im Jin Gak, South Korea.Location of Panmunjom on the Korean peninsula.Panmunjom during peace negotiations, 1951.
At the Bridge of No Return.  In the foreground is the poplar tree that was the center of the axing incident on August 18, 1976.
At the Bridge of No Return. In the foreground is the poplar tree that was the center of the axing incident on August 18, 1976. | Source
A North Korean flag near Panmunjom, 1985.
A North Korean flag near Panmunjom, 1985. | Source
A North Korean soldier at Panmunjom.  The Armband indicates he is on duty. 1985.
A North Korean soldier at Panmunjom. The Armband indicates he is on duty. 1985. | Source
North Korean visitors to Panmunjom.  1985.
North Korean visitors to Panmunjom. 1985. | Source
Building on the North Korean Side of Panmunjon.
Building on the North Korean Side of Panmunjon. | Source
The Bridge of No Return.
The Bridge of No Return. | Source
Memorial to the Rangoon Bombing victims, Im Jin Gak, South Korea.
Memorial to the Rangoon Bombing victims, Im Jin Gak, South Korea. | Source
Location of Panmunjom on the Korean peninsula.
Location of Panmunjom on the Korean peninsula. | Source
Panmunjom during peace negotiations, 1951.
Panmunjom during peace negotiations, 1951. | Source

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.

Panmunjom

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)

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    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 14 months ago from Houston, Texas

      They may not have lost tourists back then but I certainly would want no part of visiting North Korea today. Too much sabre rattling! Actually what they threaten today is much more dangerous than rattling sabres. What lead you to visiting those areas back in the 1980s?

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 14 months ago

      I was in Korea from August 1985-August 1986. The opportunity presented itself so went. The tourists only step a few feet into North Korea. A large MP stood at the door on the North Korean side. They had a quick reaction force in the area that was ready to go in 45 seconds should there be an incident. The North Koreas are always up to something. They seem to be getting more brazen these last few years. Since the North Koreans have never been seriously called on it I suppose they have reason to be bold.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 12 months ago from Houston, Texas

      Glad you enjoyed your experience. They certainly are getting more brazen as you wrote. I pray that region does not erupt into warfare. That is the last thing our world needs right now!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 12 months ago

      For the North Koreans sabre rattling is a way of life.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 8 months ago from Minnesota

      I had not heard of Panmunjom before. I would not want to visit North Korea now, or when you were there. But, I'm glad people like yourself have had the opportunity to do so and share about it on HubPages. I love to learn. - kudos!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 8 months ago

      It was, and I presume still is, an interesting experience. Panmunjom is about an hour drive from Seoul. It does give people something to think about.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 2 weeks ago from North Texas

      After what the North Koreans did to Otto Warmbier, I think that would be a good place to avoid. Kim Jong-un must be a barbarian of the worst sort, and given N. Korea's history, not their first and only barbarian.

      I realize there are sure to be people living there under great duress because of him, but I would still have no use to go there. There are certain places in this world I do not consider civilized and so I would never go to those places and discourage others from doing so as much as I can.

      Very interesting to read your recollection just the same. Well done.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image
      Author

      Robert Sacchi 2 weeks ago

      Thank you. Yes, with North Korea is barbaric and brazen. Since they never have to pay a serious price for it there is no incentive for them to stop. The Panmunjom tour highlights some of the North Korean acts of barbarism.

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