Monday, July 28, 2003

A Place Of History

Every once in a while I find myself in a place or situation not of my design. Places like Germany when the iron curtain fell or western Louisiana when the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded. Yesterday was one of those places and situations.

Yesterday marked the 50th Anniversary of the Signing of the Armistice to end hostilities between North and South Korea and establish the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that still divides the Korean peninsula. A ceremony was held in Pan Mun Jom, a "village" that straddles the border between the two Koreas and serves as a symbolic conference center for continuing peace talks.

The day began with an insanely early sounding of my alarm clock at 0430. An overcast, drizzly day greeted me as I emerged from my hooch. The gloomy atmosphere was exacerbated by very real possibility of trouble. On everyone's minds were the rumors of orders from Kim Jong Il, president of North Korea, to attempt to disrupt the Armistice Commemoration at the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Pan Mun Jom. I linked up with my South Korean Assistant, went to the arms room to get him his 9mm pistol and we headed north.

This was to be my first drive through the DMZ. I expected something out of a war movie. However, aside from the fence on the south boundary of the DMZ, I saw only plush hills and green rice paddies. Still, I could not shake the twinge of fear that the KPA (the North Korean Army) might try something. As we passed the entrance to TaeSong Dong (Liberty Village), the only village inside the DMZ on the south side of the border, the rain soaked guards saluted until we rounded the next turn in the road. A short while later we pulled into PMJ and the JSA.

Again, I was pleasantly surprised by the modernity of this place on the border between hostile nations. Here and there were various monuments to those who had given their lives in the years since the Armistice. Most visible on the compound is the Sunken Garden, where a young South Korean soldier was killed by his North Korean "brothers" as they attempted to retrieve a Soviet defector who had rushed across the border to freedom. The two main buildings on the south are called Freedom House (the larger of the two) and Peace House. The exterior seemed to be made mostly of glass. Inside, the walls and floors were of polished granite, the chandeliers were crystal, the candelabras were silver and the chairs were leather. It was like seeing a 4 star hotel in downtown Tonopah, NV. Freedom House sits approximately 50 feet from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) which is the actual border. Three small United Nations blue buildings sit on the border and serve as conference rooms allowing negotiators to sit at the same table while staying in their respective countries. Three North Korean guard towers stand in a line parallel to the border and about 30 feet north of it. To the west of Freedom House, south of the border, stands a large and colorful pagoda.

For this occasion, a very large white tent had been erected between the two main buildings to hold the commemoration ceremony. In attendance were 2500 Korean War veterans from many different countries, their families, countless press, more generals than should be allowed in one place at one time, and dignitaries from around the world including Henry Kissenger and Helen Clark, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Many countries were represented such as The United States, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, South Korea and others.

The soldiers and officers of my battalion were tasked with security for the event. Thus we arrived very early, set up and waited. Finally, bus after bus began to arrive loaded with some of the greatest people on earth. As these heroes of old made their way onto the compound their faces were alive with wonder. You could tell by their expressions that many of them could not believe where they were. I stood at one corner of Freedom House and watched them pass by. I heard more than one comment that the last time they saw that area it was anything but green. Every so often one would approach me, noticing the cross on my hat, and give a brief account of their chaplain during the war, or mention that they have a son or uncle or brother who is or was a chaplain. Everywhere conversations were taking place as these honored vets stopped to talk to their younger brothers in arms. All had stories to tell, and all told them readily. With so many countries represented there were accents to spare and much of what was said to me I could not understand. However, I could understand their gestures and expressions and even though they mumbled or squeaked or prattled on in a dialect I could not make out, there was no mistaking...these men had been a part of something awesome and terrible and they are to be respected, even revered for it. One very elderly Korean gentleman approached me with outstretched hand and began speaking very quickly. I could not understand him, but as he spoke, staring into my eyes, I knew I was listening to someone important. I nodded respectfully without saying a word and he departed. A young man quickly approached me and told me the old man was a retired Korean general and he wanted to shake my hand. He wanted to shake my hand. Later I overheard an elderly American Veteran with very clear speech speaking to a group of young soldiers. He said, "Thank you boys for what you are doing." He couldn't know what it meant to those around him to hear that. My young Korean Assistant, who is no more that 20 years old, said to me as we watched a sea of old warriors flowing by, "I am glad for them to have fought for our freedom."

As the ceremony commenced the crowd disappeared. This allowed me to move through Freedom House and stand in front of Conference Row. On the other side of the border, the North has it's own building roughly analogous to our Freedom House. It's called Pan Mun Gak. During the entire day a lone sentry in dress uniform stood at the top of the steps facing us. To his left a small window was slightly ajar with an observer just inside. He, too, stayed there all day watching us through binoculars or a camera or a scope. Just watching. We were being watched from each of the guard towers as well. Cameras were positioned in strategic locations to monitor the goings on on the south side. We too have several cameras trained on them. Each side suspicious of the other.

As the ceremony in the tent proceeded, the activity behind Freedom House increased. The plan was to allow the vets to come out and look at Pan Mun Gak across the border and even enter T-2, the center building on Conference Row where they could cross into North Korea inside the building. This meant much stress, tension, and security. Soldiers were placed at the south corners of the three conference buildings with two more outside the south entrance of T-2 and still two more at the north entrance inside the building. The guards at the corners stood stone still, staring at the lone guard at Pan Mun Gak with one eye exposed from behind the cover of T-2. It was not a little eerie! Once the ceremony concluded, 2500 guests made their way to conference row. Four soldiers appeared on the roof of PMG to take a look at the crowd and have a smoke. Just inside Freedom House, a buffet was set up with world-class food for our very deserving veterans. The soldiers on the North could only watch and wish. Again, with a plate of food and a desire to see the inside of T-2, conversation flowed. Stories came easy. Everyone remembered. Somehow, I became the unofficial photographer for several vets and their families wanting a picture of them with PMG and it's lone sentry in the background to prove they were so close to North Korea. One gentleman was being pushed through the crowd in a wheelchair proudly holding a picture of himself taken in Korea 52 years before. He was a favorite with the photographers from around the world.

Finally the busses returned and picked up their passengers to head back to Seoul for another banquet and commemoration. As the compound slowly emptied I watched from the high point in the pagoda. I watched as hundreds of old soldiers hobbled and limped to their busses. Their sacrifices had secured freedom for South Korea and the world. In stark contrast to the real efforts and accomplishments of these great men, in the distance I could see Kijong Dong, aptly nicknamed "Propaganda Village". It is the only village in the DMZ north of the border. It has many high rises and seems to be a small metropolis in the middle of nowhere. In reality, Kijong Dong is a facade, literally. Fake buildings made to portend prosperity but only a shell of a village.

The Joint Security Area, the Demilitarized Zone, and the 50th Anniversary of the Signing of the Armistice to end hostilities between North and South Korea and establish the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that still divides the Korean peninsula. In the shadow of that place of history stood 2500 History Makers. Yesterday, I found myself in a place outside of my own design and I'm thankful.