Panmunjom. 1994. North Korean Guards at Panmunjom.

 

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Low white building on center left is site of present day Truce Talks. North Korean administrative building is in background.

 

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Panmunjom.1989. Lee Ho Chul. Author of  Panmunjom, a novel about Korea. Photos by H. Barker
 

 

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Additional Photographs
From
Panmunjom
and the
Joint Security Agency

 Return To Heartbreak
Ridge

A Journey Into The Past

 

Panmunjom

Truce Village

 

 

While I was in Korea, United States Eighth Army personnel exerted  a tremendous effort to expose me to Korean customs and culture, to makesure that I did not just experience the "hamburger" culture of United States Forces Korea. 

At Panmunjom, the site of negotiations between the North and South, I met American soldiers attached to the Military Armistice Commission.

Only yards away, North Korean soldiers took photographs of me taking photographs of them. I didn't feel tense or nervous, I was almost outside my body, just observing.

Sergeant David McGee, from Birmingham, Alabama, stood towering before me. McGee is a black man, strong, powerful, a symbol of all that is right about our country. Big men serve at Panmunjom.

I talked to Sergeant Edwin Brand of San Diego, California, and Corporal Melvin Over of Cherry Valley, Illinois. Each told me it was cold here, and boring in a way only a soldier could know. After the standard tour of a few weeks, it was Seoul, and some good times. I didn't find it curious at all that Brand would tell me that he often found it beautiful looking off into North Korea.

In the event of hostilities, McGee, Over, and Brand would be telegrams to their mothers, or visits from a uniformed officer knocking on a door. They would be dead, long dead, and only memories. 

This is Panmunjom, and it is the real world, where people can die, and political ideals can be uniformly expressed in death. Americans have died here on the ground where these men stand every day of their tour. I don't feel self-conscious saying that I feel proud to have met these soldiers.

I also met Lee Ho Chul, a best-selling South Korean novelist, at Panmunjom. A crew from MBC, a Korean television network, was filming Lee at the Truce Village.

Lee's book, ""Panmunjom"", is a metaphor of North Korean and South Korean relations. In Asia, ideas are often expressed in symbolism. The story is about the relationship between a man and a woman. The man is a South Korean journalist, the woman a North Korean journalist.

The two journalists meet at Panmunjom, and both fall deeply in love.

But the love is impossible.

North Korea and South Korea are inextricable in love. The bonds between North and South are family bonds, blood bonds, bonds of a culture split in ideology. But the love is impossible. It struck me like a hammer blow what Lee Ho Chul was saying about peace on the Korean peninsula. But Lee was also saying that where there is love, there is a chance. Without hope, there is nothing but despair.

American soldiers occupy positions on high ground overlooking the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. I visited these positions with several officers and men of the United States Army.

It was another unforgettable experience.

I stood at the trip wire, the cutting edge of American military power in Korea. Here the 1st Battalion of the 506th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army Second Indianhead Division stands as a front line combat unit. 

Two outposts, Collier and Ouellette, comprise the forward American elements. Kids, American kids from California, Kentucky, and points around the country man the bunkers and stand the constant patrols. Anti-personnel radar antennas spin, seeking out movement on the North Korean side of the Military Demarkation Line.

This isn't Hollywood, John Wayne is not here, and it is not easy duty. The bunkers are cold, without decent heating, and the soldiers are constantly in touch with their surroundings. 

A tall young officer reminiscent of John Denver escorted me around Guard Post Ouellette. A bayonet flopped from his belt as he walked. He was calm without bravado, like the nice clean-cut kid down the street.

It was a very clear day looking out on North Korea. The Demarkation Line separating the two countries was only 50 yards away, and I was told American and North Korean patrols come within yards of each other in this area. Fences, barbed wire, and mine fields lay in front of me. It was a sobering thought. 

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All Photos Copyright Hal Barker, 1989

 

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