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Bordering on War

Aharon Granevich-Granot, Panmunjom, North-South Korean border

On this strip of border, the soldiers of South Korean officer Per Byong Chol watch the North Korean military men in their viewfinder, while the bellicose threats of aggression by North Korea and the intelligence reports from the South have tensed up an already-volatile piece of land — officially a demilitarized zone, yet the most heavily armed strip in the world. Chol, who accompanied the Mishpacha team to this crossing, was blunt: “We’re here to prevent them from setting the whole region aflame.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

south koreaThe view from this boot camp is breathtaking; exercises take place in the clear mountain air. But just as I remember from my own boot camp, the commanders here don’t want to make their soldiers’ lives easy. These young men have to be ready: in a few weeks they’ll be sent directly to the border to protectSouth Koreafrom attack from the north.

These recruits, young boys just out of high school, are clear about their goal. Although they don’t remember the American installations or MASH units from the Korean War, they want to see the Communist stranglehold onNorth Korealoosened; many have family members in the North whom they cannot visit, and with reports of starvation and devastation coming out ofNorth Korea, they worry for their safety.

Invoking the Korean War here evokes strong patriotic sentiments.

Although the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two sides of theKoreanPeninsulais over two miles wide, the tension we witness when we visit the border later is palpable. Its moniker notwithstanding, the DMZ is the most heavily armed region in the world.

From the vantage point of Per Byong Chol, the South Korean officer responsible for patrolling the Southern side of thePanmunjomborder, the red emblems and Communist star on the helmets of the North Korean soldiers are clearly visible. Chol knows that all eyes are focused on this once-abandoned border village where the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement between the two sides was signed.

But that agreement was no more than a truce, and since they never agreed to make peace, half a century later the countries are officially still at war. And despite having the distinction of being the only tourist destination where visitors are required to sign a release accepting responsibility for “injury or death as a result of enemy action,”Panmunjomactually does a busy tourist trade.

Dozens of Chol’s soldiers patrol back and forth in groups of three, equipped with communications devices and binoculars. They sleep and patrol at six-hour intervals. “Today, it’s relatively pleasant outside,” he tells us. “But sometimes it’s freezing cold.” While Chol speaks some English, the rest of his soldiers don’t understand a word.

Chol’s patrol is part of a division whose job is to prevent incursions from the Communist, China-allied North into the US-allied South. Several years ago, the North’s army successfully penetrated the South through four underground tunnels, one of which eventually became accessible to the public as a tourist attraction. But these days, as border tensions have mounted followingNorth Korea’s nuclear testing and world sanctions, the South Korean soldiers aren’t allowing anyone to get close.

Tensions have mounted in recent weeks afterNorth Korea’s neophyte 29-year-old ruler, Kim Jong-Un, threatened to unleash a nuclear attack against theUSin retaliation for stiffening US and UN sanctions. The Obama administration responded toNorth Korea’s belligerence by rushing naval ships and ballistic missile defense systems to the Western PacificislandofGuam, 30 percent of which is controlled byUSmilitary bases.

We see American influence everywhere: the Koreans’ uniforms are American, their equipment is American, and even training exercises for new inductees are dictated by the Americans. American army commanders are all over the Demilitarized Zone, going back to a Mutual Security Agreement from 1954 that commits the two nations to assist each other in case of attack from outside forces, and to a 1978 Combined Forces Command, an integrated headquarters responsible for planning the defense ofSouth Korea.


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