(Sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Wed, 24 Dec 1997)


(NB: This is a put-you-there post about a highly-sensitive part of the world. It is not meant as a political statement, serving any cause or personal agenda. Also, it is only as accurate as the remnants of memory, four months after the event, permit.)

Beth and I met in front of Yongsam's USO, that famed entertainer of US troops, at 7am. Today's entertainment was visiting Asia's equivalent of the Berlin Wall. People were rolling up--the lounge was already full of military personnel in uniform and civvies wearing their Sunday best, all ready to go as close as possible to North Korea. Destination: Panmunjom, the outpost between the two Koreas, where we would be able to see some real live North Koreans, and get a glimpse of a land that we heard was bristling with Nodong missiles, megaphoned propaganda, and a starving populace.

It sounds ghoulish to say it, but it was thrilling, and only heightened by the document we were later handed to sign:



1. The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action. The Joint Security Area is a neutral but divided area guarded by United Nations Command military personnel on the one side (South), and Korean People's Army personnel on the other (North). Guests of the United Nations Command are not permitted to cross the Military Demarcation Line into the portion of the Joint Security Area under control of the Korean People's Army. Although incidents are not anticipated, the United Nations Command, the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act.

2. Visitors must comply with the following instructions:

3. Any questions concerning the above information should be brought to the attention of the tour guide.

(DECLARATION follows which says that I acknowledge the above, and has a line to sign.)


which I eagerly signed, for no way was I going be left behind. Beth had made our reservation weeks in advance (daily tours are limited to two busloads--I think around sixty people--and moreover limited to people who were not potential saboteurs; hence no Koreanish person need apply). Beth had repeatedly stressed the need for proper attire, so I was prepared. Although in my fourth week living from a backpack, in the very bottom I had stowed a pristine dry-cleaned Y-shirt with tie, as well as now-rumpled slacks--for this very day.

Filing onto our buses, we (a mix of Draft-age red-blooded Americans that included all races except, to the best of my memory, Asians) departed on a day that looked bright and sweltering in the South, but cloudy, dark and menacing up North. Into the Heart of Darkness.


We had a young Korean lady as tour guide, practicing her English (it was quite good) by giving a brief profile of Seoul as we drove out of it. She ran off the great places to see around town, as if our passengers hadn't been outside of their bases much. (This might have indeed been true--Beth, then in the final weeks of her yearlong tour, had barely left Osan AB to see Seoul proper, and had not once left the capital vicinity.) The guide tried to tell jokes, field questions, and otherwise fulfill a role so often found in Asian "bus girls"--keeping the passengers genki. Most passengers acted Asian in return, ignoring the spiel, looking out the windows, watching as the city melted away and became merely roadway along a river. The highway, Unification Road, is several lanes wide (and thus would provide perfect access for an invasion) and was soon swaddled in razor wire; the river became manned and mined for NK frogmen or saboteurs. We passed by political billboards, watchtowers, displays of rustic military vehicles, and the occasional layby where Korean tourists stretched and bought souvenirs from ramshackle shops. Then we left them all behind, as we went deeper into the Zone than even the Korean civilians may.


was where our guide finally fell silent and the US military took over. A US Army guy, with two or three ROK troops in respective fatigues, boarded our bus. "STANDS ALONE!" he barked. He gave us the lowdown on how we were entering a militarily sensitive zone, and reiterated that we were to follow all instructions and take pictures only when specifically permitted. Failure to comply means we lost our film. During this speech, the ROK troops came down the aisles to cursorily search our bus for sensitive materials. The soldier concluded with an explanation of procedure (which meant waiting in a parking lot until permission to proceed was granted) and, with another butch "STANDS ALONE!" sound-off, he and his allies disembarked. The bus driver wended his way through a narrow gate into a tight parking lot, where after about fifteen minutes they raised the barberpole gate and let us through, into:


From what I can remember, the area was quite pretty--for a war zone. Rice paddy land was all around our road, imbricated with nature that was deliberately untouched, like the diverse ecosystem created by the East and West German border. Occasionally we passed quonset huts, freshly painted dirt-brown (for the Clinton visit some months ere) and coated with insulating foot-thick foam. Signs were up in M*A*S*H* fashion with the permitted wit of Americans under stress. "THE MERRY MAD MONKS" OF THE DMZ (as no women are allowed into this area) was the sign above our first stop--"The Monastery", which serves as the Visitors Center.

The busses ground to a halt, and we were herded into a small auditorium. The lights were dimmed, and clomping down the aisle in fatigues and spotless black ankle boots came a tall, handsome young man who maintained throughout a steely gaze, a confident air, and a sh*t-eating grin. He was our tour guide. He stood up on stage in an at-ease position (legs spread, arms crossed behind his back), and said (in paraphrase):

"Hello everyone. I am Specialist Tom Sawyer, and I will be here to lead you through the sensitive areas between South and North Korea known as the DMZ. This presentation will have a brief history of the conflict between the two countries, and give you an idea why we are here. At the end of the slide presentation, I will answer any questions you may have, and then prepare you for the next stage of the tour."

Subsequently, Specialist Sawyer, in rapid rote-memory mode, gave us the full Monty about the unprovoked North Korean attack which started the Korean War, on June 25, 1950, and how American re-intervention beat them back and arranged the armistice that still holds today. The fragile armistice weathered not a few incidents, including some defections from the North Korean side, exchanges of spies and captured soldiers (including those of the USS Pueblo in 1968), and of course, the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident of 1976. This was where a tree almost triggered a second Korean War.

Specialist Sawyer: "Although the trimming of a poplar tree, which blocked a line of sight between two guard posts, within the Joint Security Area was a routine procedure, the Korean People's Army from the North told them to cease activity. When the commanding officer, Captain Bonifas, ordered work to resume, thirty KPA soldiers surrounded the Americans and killed them with the work detail's axes. As you can see here in these pictures..." Slides came up of photos, taken from afar, depicting the step-by-step escalation of the situation, and the assault of the UN forces by the KPA. Red arrows denoted axes being plunged into bodies.

I had seen these before. I had bought a book on my last trip to Seoul, in the gift shop of the the former Seoul capital building (when it was still in existence--it was built by the Japanese and has been dismantled): PANMUNJOM--FACTS ABOUT THE KOREAN DMZ (Hollym, 1995 edition, 100 pgs), by Major Wayne A Kirkbride. Cleared for publication by the US military, it has some very clumsy and highly-politicized editing in places, depicting the event thus:

The book was basically Specialist Sawyer with more pictures. Sawyer: "Two people, including Major Bonifas, were killed and 24 injured. After a mobilization on both sides, the situation was resolved under OPERATION PAUL BUNYAN, where a joint mission involving ROK and UN-supported American troops felled that tree in the name of freedom. You will see the stump later on in our tour."

[NB: Kirkbride's book, amidst the 13 pages he devotes to the Axe Incident and mobilization details, treats the reader to the history of Paul Bunyan, writing:

Specialist Sawyer concluded his presentation with stats on how KPA guard posts were subsequently removed from the Southern side of the JSA, how many troops are currently on each side, and how constant vigilance is necessary with the threat of invasion from the North, with tunnels being dug through the DMZ by the North, and with KPA weaponry and manpower constantly massing on the border.

Questions did come, but they escape my memory. Specialist Sawyer then divvied out the visitor badges, and we all got back on busses to go up and touch the border.


was actually easier to pass through than Checkpoint A, since we had been cleared and briefed. Now inside the Joint Security Area, the roads soon became frequently framed by huge walls of concrete, as if we were going under incomplete bridges. Specialist Sawyer: "These walls are filled with ordnance; in case of an attack, we blow the charges and make the road impassible to tanks and other hostile vehicles. Now, as we will be coming up to the border in a few minutes, bear in mind the rules about associating with the KPA. Some of them may come out and take a look at us. They generally only come out when there are visitors. Sometimes they bring cameras. We ask that you refrain from making eye contact or other friendly gestures, for they will use it in their propaganda." We then pulled up to


which was (to the best of my memory again--we were not allowed to linger and really get a load of the exterior) a group of UN-blue-colored long bungalows, positioned like a Roman numeral III, with the North and South border cutting perpendicular through the middle of the group (the armistice line was clearly visible thanks to a line of upraised bricks in the asphalt). The wing buildings served a purpose which escapes me now, but the one we visited, in the center, contained the green negotiating table seen in all the the summit photographs, divided widthwise between North and South again. Behind and beyond either end of the III were buildings representing both sides, with the North providing a more menacing set of taller structures. (The South side of course had their own lookout towers and competing impressive buildings, most notably Freedom House, but they were not on our tour.)

Specialist Sawyer disembarked from the bus first, and two ROK troops, tall, lean with brawny arms, assumed positions with legs spread (like capital As), arms bent at the elbow with upturned palms clenched. They stood at the inner corner of the wing buildings, halfway behind, halfway exposed, making the Roman numeral III feel more like an inverted capital M. Their position, Specialist Sawyer noted later, was to show Tae Kwon Do preparedness and aggressiveness. The halfway-exposed stance was to show presence without giving the North a clear line of fire.

We entered the negotiating room, a bright but spartan structure with windows running the length of the walls, squeezing into the South side only. Specialist Sawyer said that we were now allowed to take pictures, but not to touch the green table. Hardly anyone listened, of course, and Sawyer chided a few bumpers and leaners. He then barked something in English to two ROK troops that had followed us in, and one assumed the A-position at the South door, the other, crossing the border into the North.

Specialist Sawyer: "Ladies and gentlemen, you may now cross into North Korea. Under UN treaty, this is as far into the territory that you can penetrate, and for a few minutes only. Take your pictures and don't get too close to the windows."

I thereby stepped into North Korean territory. It was like experiencing a thirtieth birthday, where you feel the same as you did the day before, but know you have crossed a barrier nonetheless. Specialist Sawyer had us on our way back to the bus before I had any time to ruminate further.


Our next stop was guard post UNC CP 5, a high hill which gave us a commanding view of commieland.

We looked into the cold, grey skies of North Korea (really, it felt like the temperature had dropped ten degrees C) and took it all in, with running commentary from Specialist Sawyer. Hills were dominated by giant Hangul signs, bearing highly political and inciteful messages. Below those hills were rice paddies, occasionally cultivated by forced labor. Megaphones blared at all hours of the day in Korean, with announcements and song praising Great Leader Kim Il Sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. Taking up a third of the North Korean landscape was a true Potemkin Village, Kijong-dong, called "Propaganda Village" in the vernacular. Vladivostokesque apartment complexes were dwarfed by a huge flagpole (160 meters tall, with flag 30 meters long), deliberately designed to be a few meters taller than the South Korean version. "Aside from caretakers and flag-raisers, nobody lives there. It is just there for show. Thus there is nothing there but propaganda."

"Contrast that with the village of Taesong-dong, on the South Korean side. We have farmers living here year round, on their own land, risking their lives but still making a living. The sell their crops to Seoul and have the highest per capita income of any town on the Korean Peninsula. They do have some problems getting in and out of the DMZ, and [I think he said] they are not allowed visitors. But the farmers on this side of Panmunjom are far more productive and enjoy a far better lifestyle than their neighbors to the North. And they have not been evicted from their land for the sake of propaganda."

A question came through about skirmishes along the border. Specialist Sawyer: "Yes, we do have a few of them every year. The KPA has certain weapons within the DMZ in clear violation of UN treaty, making things unstable. Some of the cliffs have snipers, and occasionally ordnance goes off. Look at the lay of the land. That river down there twists around a lot, and KPA foot patrols occasionally come into our territory in violation of UN treaty. If we encounter an KPA patrol, we tell them they shouldn't be there. But now and they want to pick a fight. They sometimes use flashlights and make gunshot sounds to provoke us into responding. We have to make real sure bullets are flying before lighting any of them up. You can see a map of all the incidents back at The Monastery."

My turn to ask a question: "Specialist Sawyer. In your opinion, do you think there is going to be a full-scale attack from the North?"

He smiled and looked at the sky. "I'm in the Army serving God and country. I don't have opinions."

Beth nudged me. "That's the standard answer."

"Okay." I continued. "I don't mean to pry or get you in any trouble, Specialist. I just want to know the point of view of a person on the front line, facing the enemy day in and day out, risking your life in front of them all. Off the record, do you think there is going to be a peaceful resolution to this conflict?"

His grin dimmed as he thought about it seriously. "No, I don't. The North is unstable. The two sides hate each other too much. We're here keeping them apart. If it ends peacefully, fine. But I don't think it will."

That was enough for me. I left it at that.


This was where we turned around and boarded the bus back. Suddenly Specialist Sawyer went all serious:

"Alright everyone, we are coming up CP-5, where we will see The Bridge of No Return, next to CP-3, known as "the loneliest outpost in the world". This is also where we can see the Poplar Stump of the Axe Murder Incident. As this is a sensitive area, I must request that you put on your seat belts."

Nervously, we all buckled up, and for about ten seconds that was the only thing keeping us from the edge of our seats.

Specialist Sawyer snickered here. "Ladies and gentlemen, seat belts are in fact not necessary under UN treaty, and you may release them at this time."

There was a rush of relief, and plenty of vocal types (myself included) goodnaturedly booed his sense of humor. As is common in old battle sites, they had dramatic names and were talked about with great dignity. Which was why Specialist Sawyer's wit was so surreal. It made things feel like an amusement park ride.

We pulled up to guard post CP 5 and did not disembark. From a distance of several hundred feet, we saw the desolate and unkempt Bridge and the stubs of the poplar. We had a quick recap of the incidents of that August day in 1976, and then were taken back to safer ground.

Passing by the golf course (yes, a golf course in the DMZ), Specialist Sawyer imparted one more observation:

"That there is the [name forgotten] golf course." It looked about the size of the green conference room back at the border. "It has a helluva sand trap. Full of mines. If your ball goes off the course, forget it. You better not think of getting it back."

Hearing this, I could see why the US was chary of signing the Ottawa treaty banning land mines. According to JPRI (Critique, Vol IV, Number 10, December 1997), South Korea has "nearly one million land mines seeded along its mountainous border with North Korea--about one mine per northern soldier." It would undoubtedly be a monumental undertaking to have them removed, I daresay one that neither the ROK or the UNC are interested in doing, even if it meant a better round of golf.

That was how the tour ended. We saw not a single KPA. "They don't come out much if it's bad weather," concluded Specialist Sawyer, as if he were talking about a rare kind of bird or cave bear.

They gave us half an hour in The Monastery's gift shop (where we could sign a guest book, have a beverage, or buy souvenirs. I bought a brass ashtray and a sturdy IN FRONT OF THEM ALL belt buckle), and that was all the USO provided. And, turning in our guest badges, back we went to Seoul, to sunny skies and warm temperatures.

I was unsure of what to make of it all--whether I should take a respectful tone or a wise-ass tack on the day's events. So I settled for Specialist Sawyer's attitude--fill my head with as much information as possible, see the North Koreans as enigmatic creatures, and watch my back.

Which was the perfect kiss-off after a monthlong trek. I was ready to go home, back to Japan, to a society which bordered no-one, and where the most pressing event was not the threat of war but a house to build.




In toto, I was away from Japan for about a month, and, naturally, I learned more about myself than about the places I visited. My last series of travelogues, EUROTREK 1996 (all seven parts with maps and pictures accessible from here), talked more about 1) seeing old friends after ten years, and how a decade heralded changes both for them and their societies, and 2) how places, where neither Japanese nor English could be used as a means of communication, presented obstacles and opportunities for my nacent family.

The Americatrek series talked about me, and how my links to America have withered and why. Old friends (and new) were primary features, but this time I could see how they were operating in one cultural dimension and I in another. Bill and Lisa in Seattle taught me how the American job market treats even the most promising of students. Joseph in Salem reminded me just how confrontationalism can be a positive factor in American interpersonal relations. John went beyond culture, inadvertently showing me my roots and predispositions from a genetic point of view. Doug, on the other hand, showed me my roots from a "nurture" perspective, and (also inadvertently) elucidated why I just wasn't going to fit into American culture as easily as I should. Finally, easing back into Asia through Korea, I could look back into the things that I find appealing about this side of the world, and, via Beth, get a taste of transplanted America in the form of the US military. Throughout the trip, my soul felt like it was being peeled, layer by layer, then resealed. With a little something extra left inside: Wisdom about the paths not taken.

In the end, when I saw my wife and kids back at Chitose Airport, Hokkaido, Japan, I looked upon them and my life here with renewed vigor. Said Aya: "There's a glow about you, Debito. You look younger." It was the feeling of conviction that I had made the right choices in life.

Thanks to Americatrek 1997, I can naturalize into Japan now. That of course is just as well--with a thirty-year loan it is now illegal for me to scarper off to the States. But now I KNOW I am living here by choice, not by inertia or fatigue. I am confident that I will not have some wellspring of homesickness well up inside of me, like it has for many famous and important Japanologists (e.g. Seidensticker), to drive me "home" with bitterness in my heart.

I am "home" now. In Japan. In a society in an ancient part of the world which is usually a prisoner of its history. I, and my diaspora, are going to be part of that history, White Asians living here without having been colonized, with only tenuous links to my former home culture. However, that will become a source of strength, not weakness--a strength latent in all immigrants. I, as will my children, will choose our paths, combining the wisdom of commonly-taken choices here with the vestiges of American culture, and use this concoction to send us down new and important directions that are not mere repetitions of tired history. And there are many more here like us. Like it or not, we are Japan's future.

Last trek I concluded with "Guess I'm getting old". This time:

Guess I'm getting wise.

Dave Aldwinckle

Copyright 1998, Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan


From: R.E.
Date: Wed, 17 Dec 1997
Subject: From the DMZ

Hi David,

Nice essay. It was pretty accurate and gave the reader a feeling of being there.

I just wanted to correct a small inaccuracy. The "Marine" you mentioned at checkpoint A is actually an Army 2d Infantry Division soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment (the Curahee regiment). The 1/506th soldiers sound off with "Stands Alone" which is the unit motto of the Curahee Regiment. "In Front of Them All" is the motto of the UN JSF. All the soldiers assigned to the JSA and Camp Bonifas are Army and part of the UN Joint Security Force-Panmunjom. Checkpoint A is actually called Freedom Bridge, and the Freedom Bridge Checkpoint, and is not under the control of the US JSF. The Freedom Bridge Checkpoint is the northernmost point a normal citizen can go, unless they were on a tour like you were. It is just north of the Imjin Gak (Imjin House) which was the tourist looking place with all the military stuff on display. Freedom Bridge is controlled by the 2d Infantry Division and the ROK 1st Infantry Division. Checkpoint A is the entrance to Camp Bonifas, Checkpoint B is the entrance to the JSA just north of Camp Bonifas.....

(insertion from separate, follow-up email)

Feel free to post part or all of my response.... I'm still in the US Army, and am now in the US. I lived in Korea for about 8 years between 1986 and 1997. I was stationed at in 1993-1995 at Camp Howze which is about 15 Min drive south of Freedom Bridge.

Also, if you go the the Official 2d Infantry Division web page (search on 2d Infantry Division), you can get an aerial JPEG image of Camp Greaves (home of the 1/506 Infantry) which shows the Freedom Bridge area if you're interested....

I look forward to seeing this on your Web page. Few people remember the sacrifices made by all the UN countries that fought against North Korean and Chinese aggression. Also few know of the daily vigilance of the soldiers of the 2d Inf Division and the UN JSF.

Sincerely yours, R.E.

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