North Korea ended the week with another weapons test on Friday — this time a test of a short-range missile. Its actions are certain to test the resolve of the international community even further, after North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb on Monday.
Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge reported from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, and writes about going on patrol with U.S. troops on Christmas eve in 2006.
I have twice spent time embedded with U.S. forces stationed at the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom in the DMZ.
The demilitarized zone is where another Korean War could very well begin. In just three years, the first Korean War killed more than 38,000 American military personnel, more than 58,000 South Korean military personnel and killed or wounded more than 2 million civilians, which is why few here are keen to see a second war. If there was another, estimates are that 10,000 people would die in just the first hour. The DMZ remains so sensitive that even now I cannot tell you everything I saw while I was there. What follows is some of what I can…
Stand-to came at 4:45 a.m., first light, but because of the rain and fog that now shrouded Observation Post Oulette, it was still pitch black. In the labyrinth of tunnels and fortifications that riddled the hilltop, soldiers stood in full combat gear, guns at the ready and manning positions. The scuffling of boots, mixed with the sloshing of water that had invaded their bunkers, was backed up by the steady drip-drip drum beat of a rain that wouldn’t stop. If an attack was going to come, history said this was most likely the time.
The soldiers were a little edgy. Most hadn’t slept well in the small outpost’s cramped barracks. A number of land mines had gone off in the night, detonated by lighting or maybe a deer — maybe a North Korean.
I was in my third week of living with U.S. forces stationed there. It was easy to feel nervous there. Though the Korean War stopped 50 years before, it never officially ended — instead, it was suspended by an armistice. Technically, North and South Korea are still at war. That’s something you really feel in the dank and dark underground, especially when you know that less than two miles away, an estimated million or more North Korean soldiers are also at stand-to. Armed and ready to bring it on, again.
But Armageddon apparently waited for another day. So, after breakfast, I joined about a dozen soldiers in a makeshift gym to witness a regular ritual. It began when someone plugged an iPod into a big boom box, cranked the volume and then hit play. The howling grunge of heavy metal pulsated through the room. The soldiers bobbed to its rhythm, psyching themselves up for what lay ahead as they turned to the mirrors on the wall and painted their faces camouflage colors, green and black.
This was a patrol about to go in search of North Korean infiltrators. We would walk the line — the military demarcation line that in those parts passes as a border. Essentially, it’s where the front lines were when the guns fell silent five decades earlier. Today, it’s still a trip wire for the next war. If the North Koreans cross it, then it all kicks off again — or at least that’s the theory. The North Koreans do cross it, just not in large numbers. In ones or twos, North Korean commandos sneak across as part of their own ritual.
This patrol was going out to find the North Koreans or signs that they have been there. The mission was considered so dangerous that only I was allowed to go — the camera couldn’t. I painted my own face and wore camo. Those are the army’s rules.
The day before, we even practiced the patrol somewhere else so that I could get a sense of how the soldiers move. Above all, to get to know the hand gestures, as once we leave the outpost, not a word would be spoken. Stop, go, get down…hands went up, fists clenched or flattened, palms circled in the air.
We set off down the outpost’s steep driveway. As we approached the double row of ten foot high steel fencing topped with swirls of concertina wire, the South Korean guards took up defensive positions before opening the gate. The rain poured down, and before we even crossed the perimeter, every member of the patrol was soaked.
To me, the patrol seemed to take a meandering course, down steep rocky slopes, slogging through wet underbrush and slithering up the muddy other sides. The rain was good and bad. It covered the noise of the patrol, but it also made it harder to see. Out there, it’s very easy to bump into a North Korean patrol or come across an infiltrator by stumbling over them. In the past, that has not turned out well…if the North Koreans feel trapped, rather then get caught, they use hand grenades to kill themselves. Pictures of the aftermath still hang on walls in the basement of nearby Camp Bonifas.
Another danger in the gloom: It’s very easy for the patrol to accidentally cross into North Korea. Away from Panmunjom, the demarcation line is only marked by signs spread a hundred meters or so apart. But the signs are the originals. Half a century later, their once-bright yellow paint has now turned rusty brown, the warning words unreadable. The U.S. and South Korea have wanted to replace them, but the North Koreans have to agree and so far they haven’t.
After a half hour or, so hands went up and the patrol sank down to one knee. Each man was spread far from the next so a mine or mortar wouldn’t take too many out. More gestures. The unit took up positions and simply waited — this was part of the surveillance. Everyone scanned the scene in front of them and strained to listen, looking for movement or listening for the whisper of footsteps. The entire patrol was just statues. One minute…five…10 minutes…waiting.
Another hand moved, and we rose and became animated again. We repeated this several times. We walked a long lazy loop, and after a while, we came across an ancient graveyard. Large tombstones sat at awkward angles; others were broken or fallen. It was here the North Korean commandos reportedly came.
The Americans say it’s part of a test they must pass: To cross the border into the south and return undetected. To prove they really made the journey, they carry pencils and paper to rub upon the stones of the graves and carry back to their commanding officers. No rubbings? Don’t bother returning.
The patrol inspected the area for signs of visitors, finding indications but no solid proof. After several hours of this silent hide-and-seek, we made the steep return up Outpost Oulette’s drive. The gates opened and only once inside did the guns go back on safety.
Patrols like this have been going out every day for 50 years. More than 28,000 U.S. troops are still in Korea today, daily guarding against a war most Americans back home forgot long ago.
– Martin Savidge