Scariest place on Earth

Sep 28th
Posted by shambo  as Government, History
Negotiation Shack - Panmunjeom, DMZ Korea

Negotiation Shack - Panmunjeom, DMZ Korea

Let me say this about that.

Question: “What do the following countries have in common?”

Canada, USA, Mexico, Bermuda, Bahamas, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Grand Cayman, British Virgin Islands, St Martin, Barbados, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Ireland, Scotland, England, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Greece, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Israel, India, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Australia, Mariana Islands, Japan, Taiwan, French Polynesia, South Korea, and North Korea.

The common thread among these 57 countries (technically, some being protectorates, colonies, or principalities) is that…    I have been to them all….put boot on turf, cleared immigration, physically was there.  I mention this only to add credibility to my qualifications for selecting the “Scariest Place on Earth.”  It’s the last one on the list …. North Korea.

In the late ’80′s I was assigned responsibility for five electronic manufacturing facilities scattered over Asia, one of which was in Seoul, South Korea.  On my first visit, I met with the local plant manager and his staff and it was clear they had done their homework on “the new boss”.  Over dinner that night, the plant manager said he was aware that I was an avid student of military history and wondered if I would be interested in a tour of the military camp at Panmunjeom.  Panmunjeom is the site where peace negotiations were held for decades following the Korean War.  Tours like this are normally reserved for visiting dignitaries so I jumped at the chance.

On Saturday morning, I was picked up and driven the 50 miles north to the DMZ.  On  the way, I was given a tour of several tunnels dug beneath the DMZ by the North Koreans to smuggle in spies.  Incursions from the North are not uncommon and firefight field markers are everywhere.

Crossing the southern boundary of the DMZ was an intense series of security checks, searches, and questions conducted by solemn men armed to the teeth.  A quarter mile from the border, I was escorted into a small building and introduced to a Captain in the U.S. Army Rangers.  And, for the first time, I was informed that we would be actually crossing the border into North Korea!!!  He told me that I should NOT look directly at the North Korean soldiers, NOT speak, NOT make any sudden moves, and NOT touch anything.  He told me the entire affair would be photographed by both sides, and the photographs submitted to the U.N. in case of any “unpleasantness”.  I gathered “unpleasantness” occurred considerably more often than was reported to the Western press.

After the briefing, we were taken a few hundred yards to the border.  Several small shacks straddled the border, with the building in the center used for the actual negotiations.  As the captain and I approached the “Negotiation Shack” from the South Korean side,  a North Korean officer and a soldier with a 35mm camera approached from the North.  As if on que, the Captain and his North Korean counterpart both drew their weapons and cocked them.

My butt-hole could have squeezed a lump of coal into a diamond.

Both sides began snapping photos furiously as the Captain and I entered the “Negotiation Shack”.  No one was in the one room structure except me, the Captain and his 45 caliber handgun.  The North Korean officer, with his handgun, and the North Korean soldier with the camera watched us through the window.

There was a conference table in the center of the room with a couple of chairs on either side.  A vertical 4-inch white stripe was painted on the wall to the left  and ran down to the floor.  It continued across the floor, over the conference table, across the room and up the opposite wall.  This was the boundry between North and South Korea.  Two tiny flags were positioned in the center of the table.  The North Korean flag was slightly higher and the South Korean flag was slightly larger.  I was told it took nearly a year to reach this compromise before peace negotiations could even begin.

I stepped over the white line and entered Communist North Korea.  Cautiously, I walked to the north end of the room like I was walking on eggs, and turned around.  For the first time, I made eye-to-eye contact with the North Korean officer, holding his cocked pistol in the ready position.

He did not want me in his country.

At that point, I did not want me in his country either.  I walked back across the room, stepped over the white line into South Korea, and exited the shack with the Captain covering my retreat with his weapon.  The intensity of the experience sucked the very air out of my lungs.  It is a cold, humourless, grey and unworldly place with no soul whatsoever.  It is the scariest place on Earth.

And, that’s all I have to say about that.



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