Photograph by Michael Yamashita
A ten-foot-high (three-meter-high) barbed-wire fence runs along the southern side of the DMZ. The sign atop the hill flashes patriotic slogans in an attempt to demoralize North Korean border guards.
Panmunjom Revealed: Visiting Warfare in Korea's DMZ
By Adam Theiler
Disney World meets the Twilight Zone. A quirky Cold War theme park 50 years in the making invites busloads of tourists (RealPlayer, WinMedia) to witness the lingering drama of the Korean Warand leave through the gift shop. Guided tours showcase military tension while diplomats confer behind closed doors and special guests relax in the Swedish sauna, perhaps after tennis. Weird. Dangerous. Fun . . . if it weren't so tragic. Welcome to Panmunjom, the 2,600-foot-wide (800-meter-wide) circular heart of Korea's Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Across the Line: Truce Without Peace
Panmunjom was built atop the burned-out shell of a village when negotiators moved talks from communist-held Kaesong to this neutral wasteland in October 1951. For nearly two years talks stumbled forward while troops in the field bled in protracted battle along the 38th parallel. The 1953 cease-fire silenced the battlefield at 2200 hours on July 27, 1953, clearing the stage for massive prisoner exchanges. With typical Cold War drama, more than 75,000 communist prisoners marched defiantly north across the Bridge of No Return (RealPlayer, WinMedia), casting away boots, cigarettes, toothpaste, any evidence that life was less than brutal in the South.
Today's United Nations-appointed Military Armistice Commission (MAC) continues to monitor implementation of the truce terms. Diplomacy on the ground among MAC delegates proceeds remarkably well in spite of North Korean bluster and American rhetoric. Representatives meet weekly to resolve issues ranging from communications between opposing armies to repatriation of war remains.
On Stage: Military Standoff
But a peace treaty did not end the Korean War. Instead, Panmunjom's 1953 cease-fire notoriously separated United Nations and communist forces with a 148-mile-long (238-kilometer-long) by 2.5-mile-wide (four-kilometer-wide) DMZ that runs the width of the Korean Peninsula. Steps away from war-vintage conference buildings, sworn enemies stare eye to eye across the dead center of the DMZ, the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), literally a concrete bump that separates two of the world's largest armies (RealPlayer, WinMedia). In the distance, a 600-pound (270-kilogram) North Korean flag (RealPlayer, WinMedia) looms from atop the world's tallest flagpole at the entrance to Kijong-dong, a modern day Potemkin village, replete with empty schoolhouses and trucked-in farmers.
While the 1953 armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War, it did not end hostilities in the DMZ. The United States reports more than 50 serious incidents involving North Korea hostility in the zone from 1967 through 2001. To deter North Korean aggression, the United Nations Command Security Battalion sends regular combat patrols (RealPlayer, WinMedia) on carefully selected, mine-free routes inside the DMZ. Soldiers who complete 15 such patrols or operations inside the DMZ earn the coveted Imjin Scout Award, presented in special ceremonies since 1966. Tom O'Neill, author of the July DMZ story, received an honorary Imjin award during his coverage. (RealPlayer, WinMedia)
Tired infantrymen rotate off zone duty and return home to Camp Bonifas, less than a mile away to the south. Many unwind at the linksor link. Dividing into offensive and defensive units, soldiers tee up at the "world's most dangerous golf course" (RealPlayer, WinMedia) for a quick game of combat golf. To simulate combat, each player dons laser receivers and wields a laser-mounted M4 rifle. One competitor actually plays golf while his partner protects him from two or three snipers positioned along the one-hole, 192-yard (176-meter), par-three course. Members of the offensive unit negotiate through smoke and wire to score while the defense, naturally, tries to kill them. Strokes plus time from tee to cup determines the score. If you kill a sniper, you lose a minute, and the lowest score wins.
After-hours: European Charm in the DMZ
Sweden and Switzerland hold high the banner of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (RealPlayer, WinMedia). Born as an independent body to monitor the cease-fire, this group originally boasted four complete delegations from neutral countries, each with a permanent camp in Panmunjom: Czechoslovakia and Poland north of the MDL, Sweden and Switzerland to the south. Changing political winds from Pyongyang drove the Czech component out in 1993. The Polish delegation managed to hang on until 1995, when North Korea cut camp electricity and literally froze them out. Today the Swedish and the Swiss remain committed to providing neutral arbitration within the MAC but don't hesitate to relax when the workday ends.
Honored guests may join Swedish delegates in an authentic Swedish sauna (RealPlayer, WinMedia). Less hardy winter visitors alternate baking and freezing their bodies in line with Swedish custom, which mandates transfer from the stifling sauna to an icy Panmunjom snowdrift. True, all roads lead to Stockholm (RealPlayer, WinMedia) from the center of the Swedish camp, but even a friendly tennis match (RealPlayer, WinMedia) just outside the camp's razor-wire perimeter recalls the ever-present danger of life in the DMZ. Capt. Lars Petersson of the Swedish delegation cautions, "When we hit the balls over the fence, we never pick them up because we don't know if there are minefields around here."
Panmunjom is the "beginning, middle, and end" of the DMZ. Present at the creation in 1953, it administers today's DMZ and will certainly preside over its ultimate fate. Some eye the DMZ as prime real estate, ready for development of an active commercial zone to benefit a reunified Korea. Others share a vision of the buffer zone as a peace park, dedicated to biodiversity and ecotourism. In any case, the Korean War cannot last forever. A peace treaty will eventually replace the armistice agreement. Perhaps then Panmunjom can retire its conference rooms and security platoons, welcoming tourists to close the books on what was once the Korean War.