LAST VESTAGE OF THE COLD WAR
January 1, 1970
It is a slice of Shangri La where time has stopped, where man does not tread, where animals graze without fear and where nature has reclaimed the land. It’s beauty is stunning, yet people do not live in harmony here. It is the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, the last landmark of the Cold War that may not soon vanish.
The day the Korean War began remains vivid in my memory. I was nine and I’d never heard of Korea. In this respect I wasn’t alone. Many Americans that day turned to the person beside them and asked: “Where is Korea?”
For the next three years I followed the progress, or lack of progress, in the war. At first I collected bubble gum cards that depicted scenes of the fighting. Later, however, I forgot about the war as did many others except those who were directly involved. The neighborhood bully was drafted and went missing in Korea. None of my friends mourned his passing. But the war also took other lives and the shock reverberated throughout the community. The day the war ended, the news was something of an anti climax. Everyone knew the end was coming. It was just a matter of time before the negotiating enemies, the UN and the Communists, agreed that continued fighting was pointless. The war ended in July, 1953.
Forty-five years later I finally set foot in Korea and was struck by the terrain. For three years the hills and ridges of this peninsula were embossed in our minds from seeing them so often in news photos and in newsreels. The colors of the landscape were remrakably similar to the rich greens and browns used in the coloring of my old bublegum cards. The light green of the rice paddies is in sharp contrast to the rust colored granite that is exposed everywhere in the rugged hills and ridges.
I wasn’t staying long in Korea. I had stopped in Souel on my way to Bejing and with only a day to spare I lined up a tour of the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone. I realized the war’s lingering hold on me. There are several tours that leave daily for the DMZ. I took one sponsored by a local travel agency. The main attractions on the tour were a stop at the headquarers museum of the Korean First Infantry Division, a stop at an observation post overlooking the demilitarized zone, a tour of a North Korean tunnel that had been dug by hand underneath the DMX, a trip to Panmunjam, and fianlly lunch near Freedom Bridge on the Imjim River.
Panmunjam was stricken from our intinerary, however, because UN and North Korean forces were engaged in heavy negotiations when I was in Korea. The week before the South Koreans had captured a North Korean mini-submarine attempting to drop infiltrators into the south. One “enemy” frogman was found dead on a beach north of Soeul while the entire crew of the sub committed suicide before they could be taken alive. This sort of thing goes on all the time in Korea and we in the U.S. discount it as inconsequential. But in South Korea it is regarded as a serious threat that could lead to all-out war. The tour of the DMZ and its environs made this very clear.
Our bus left from the Lotte Hotel in the center of Soeul, a sprawling and modern city scrunched between rugged hills, and we proceeded north through seemingly endless suburbs. The city was virtually rebuilt after the war in which it changed hands several times and was bombed and shelled into a shambles. But there is almsot no sign of the war left in the city. There are signs of shell bursts on the stone foundations of a temple complex in the city center, and on the backside of the English Church downtown. But that is about all that is visible.
It is surprising to see urban development flowing so far north towards the DMZ. The North Koreans are massed only about 25-miles from Soeul and they undoubtedly would come down the very road on which we were taking to the north. But American and South Korean miluitary authorities are not blind to this threat. At various points along the road they have constructed giant tank traps designed to force any invading armored force through narrow choke points where they could easily be destroyed. Unless one is observant it is easy to pass by these traps without noticing them. Most are comprised of fields of massive concrete pillers about four feet in height and 50-yards in width that spread out from the roadway and extend for several hundred yards on each side of the road. The pillers stretch to retaining walls that flare out like wings that further extend the trap to force any tank forces toward the road. By far the most important element of the traps are the rice paddies that stretch out across the valley through which the road passes. No tank, or any vehicle for that matter, would get very far in these water-logged fields of shamrock green that stretch to the rugged and darkly green hills that are speckled with outcroppings of rust-colored granite.
On the outskirts of Soeul we encountered an occassional South Korean military vehicle driven by soldiers with garish shoulder patches. The ROK First Division patch is easy to spot; a large red numeral one on a bright yellow background. I wondered why the Koreans haven’t adopted the American practice of field brown and black patches. Closer to the DMZ the troops abandoned their casual demeaner. The camouflaged fatigue dress remained the same but now all troops wore camouflaged helmets, combat gear and webbing and M-16s slung over their shoulders.
About 45 minutes drive north of Soeul the bus slowed at a bridge spanning a wide, muddy river, the kind of waterway that seemed always to be somewhere as a backdrop in architypical Korean War photographs. We had come to a checkpoint on the Imjim River on the edge of the DMZ. Heavily armed Korean MPs boarded the bus and we were instructed through our guide that no photos would be allowed from this point forward. Two American MPs supplemented the Koreans. After the MPs left and the bus began to pull away to cross the river one of the passengers snapped a quick photograph of the checkpoint. The flash lit up the interior of the bus and was visible outside as well. The driver was ordered to a stop and two Korean plainclothes military police entered.
“Any more of that and you will be in big trouble,” our usually jolly tour guide, Jamie Lee, warned as the Koreans MPs stared down the misbehaving American tourist who only wanted a shot of the checkpoint.
Our bus set out across the Imjim, wide and calm as it flows through a fertile plain between the jagged hills of the DMZ. The bus was forced to zig zag through fields of garish yellow and triangular steel roadblocks and posted at both ends of the bridge to stop and North Korean advance. Once across the bridge we were in a zone suspended in time. Literally, nothing had changed in this narrow strip except the troops and the weapons in the 45 years since the end of the Korean War. Everything else remained as it was at the end of the conflict.
Our first stop was the Korean First Division museum where a ROK captain explained the exploits of the Korean military and of the division. The Koreans, I found, are like the French in that they leave the impression that they alone prevailed over aggression. Not to detract from the known valor of their and fighting qualities of their troops, but not once was it mentioned during our tour, that the United States had saved their nation from extinction and today remains the backbonbe of the defense against the north. Reference to outside help was to the U.N. forces who fought in the Korean War. But the Americans made up the vast majority of United Nations troops.
One amusing aspect of the museum was that large portraits of the late North Korean President, Kim Il Sung, and his son Kim Jong ll, the present North Korean strongman, were glued to the floor and the only way over them was to tread on their faces.
From the museum we drove on and upward past roped off wooded areas that were strewn with mines, past army posts of both the U.S. 2nd Division and Korean forces. As we rounded one bend in the road we passed the barracks of the 1st Battalion, 506th Regiment of the 2nd Division. From the vantage point of our elevated position in the bus we could look down on a battalion grenade training exercise. Troops in full battle gear were being instructed on how to low-crawl up behind an enemy position and flip a grenade into the gun opening.
The bus wound its way up a switch back road on the climb to the summit where we were to visit an observation post overlooking the DMZ. In my mind’s eye, the DMZ was what it had once been during the Korean War, a battered, mud brown no man’s land pocked and cratered by incessant artillery duels between U.N. and Communist forces with the ridges on both sides zippered by trench lines that zig zagged into the distance. I subsequently read that the hills on the Communist side were more brown because all the vegetation had been burned off by constant napalm strikes against the Chinese trenches.
We pulled into the parking lot behind what appeared to be a two-story concrete pavilion that resembled a two-story parking garage. As we got off the bus we were warned once again that no photographs were permitted except in the parking lot. Even the classic hills of Korea fading away to the south towards Soeul were off limits for snapshots and we hardly dared sneak a look at them. But many of members of our group cheerfully began taking the obligatory tourist pictures of each other with the observation pavilion as a backdrop. My son asked that I take his picture so that he would forever have a record of himself having been on the DMZ.
We then began to climb to the pavilion’s second floor. The entrance to the structure was gray and I was expecting the rest of the interior to resemble a pillbox of cold, poured concrete. Suddenly, however, we were in a large ampetheater with concrete, backless bleachers that descended two stories to the stage. Only there was no stage. In its place was a vast plateglass window that offered one of the most starling views I had ever seen. It was a Cinemescopic view of Eden.
This was the DMZ? It was not a war-torn valley between shattered ridges with splintered trees and stunted underbrush. This was a landscape painting of delicate light greens and tans, accentuated here and there with brush strokes of blacks. Across this pristine barrier, untouched for nearly a half century were the graceful, gently rounded oriental hills of a Chinese lithograph. Its beauty was such that there was no hint of the Stalinistic terror, of the famine, and of the despair in North Korea. The peaceful, pastoral quality of this last frontier of Communism was striking. Some fear this strip of land is a fuse that could ignite another major war. But it appeared calm and soothing in the sunshine of mid-July.
On the Communist side ridgelines converged in the center of our view then turned northward in a meandering and green valley that beckoned to a distant Shangri La. It was incomprehensible that it led to the heart of one of the world’s most repressive and autocratic regeimes where life was little better than that in the European Dark Ages. Spotted along the base of the hills were villages of light stucco and red tile roofs. An occassional mid-rise structure rose on the landscape. Our guide told us that these were nothing but facades and that few North Koreans lived near the DMZ, just as few South Koreans lived near the zone.
Off to the right of our screen, some 10-miles distant, a flag the size of a postage stamp fluttered in the breeze and just to its right were several low-lying, white buildings. This was Panmunjam and the flag was on the North Korean side. It was odd in this post Cold War era to see a flag of a Communist nation that was still an enemy and to see the spot where enemies still negotiated over old animosities.
We had been scheduled to visit Panmunjam on our tour, but the visit had been canceled because of the mini-submarine incident and negotiators were attempting to defuse the situation.
There was an unreal quality in our observation post and it was as though we were observing a giant diorama with little artificial trees and shrubs and a double fense line running along the DMZ's southern perimeter. It all resembled a model train set and there was even a train to boot, a one time locomotive that appeared as a small, tubular object in the middle of the DMZ some distance to our left. It had been there since the war and had never been removed.
It was difficullt to readjust to the outdoors as we headed back to our bus and set out to explore an infiltration tunnel a few miles away that had been dug by the North Koreans underneath the DMZ nearly to the southern perimeter of the zone. As the bus approached we were waved through several roadblocks manned by heavily armed South Korean guards before pulling once again into a large parking lot. There were few visitors this day, but there was room for many buses. The South Koreans squeeze a lot of propoganda value out of the DMZ.
The South Koreans discovered the tunnel in 1978 and immediately sealed it. But it still runs some 300 meters underneath the DMZ and is a major tourist attraction. I had no idea how long a trek 300 meters would be, but it seemed like forever. Tourists with high blook presure and heart desease are warned not to enter the tunnel. The walk in is realtively easy, but the path down is steep and long and climbing back up takes more energy than one imagines.
We set out, down at a 30 degree slant before reaching the original level of the tunnel 75 meters below the surface. Our way was illuminated by naked light bulbs positioned every 100 feet. The stone walls were wet and water dripped from the top of the tunnel which was no more than about 8 feet in height and six feet wide. I prayed that I could contain my claustrophobia. This would be one hell of a place for the lights to go out. And, suddenly, they did. The bulbs flickered momentarily and then there was absolute, complete and penetrating blackness. I knew what a trapped coal miner must experience. There was a collective moan from those in front and those in back. My mind raced with ideas on how to get out. I would collect my family and we would get on our hands and knes and crawl out. But it would be a long, long crawl.
Then the lights came back on after about a minute. Everyone sighed in relief and we walked to the end which was a solid concrete barrier guarded by an armed South Korean soldier. That was it. Just a soldier and a concrete wall. But I was ready to get out of there as quickly as possible. I wondered only if there were North Koreans on the other side of the barrier listening to our conversations.
We were once again on the bus and heading to Freedom Bridge which was spot where prisoners were exchanged at the end of the Korean War in 1953. And from Freedom Bridge we set out after lunch back to Soeul. I would have expected this ride to be nothing out of the ordinary, a bus trip down a highway back to the hotel in Soeul. But ‘Freedom Road,’ as the highway is called, is like a trip back in time, through the worst of the Cold War. All along the highway, which parallels the Imjim River, the boundary between north and south, are fortified guard posts and pillboxes manned by battled-dressed soldiers armed to the teeth. In some places the guard posts are only 100 yards apart and the unguarded areas are cordoned off by study, eight-foot high barbed wire fenses that evoke the Iron Curtain in Europe. As the highway turns south it parallels the Han River which flows through Soeul. He too, the river’s banks are spotted with guardposts and barbed wire. The deneses extend to within 20 miles or Soeul.
The visit to the DMZ had been a unique experience and I assumed that it would not be long before it was taken down. But events indicate that it may be there for many years to come.
David P. Colley