By Walter T. Ham IV

On Lieutenant Commander Daniel McShane’s first day on the job at the United Nations Command commission that maintains the Korean War cease-fire, North Korea stopped answering the phone and threatened to shred the armistice agreement.

McShane had just spent three years at the Naval Postgraduate School and Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California, earning a master’s degree in East Asian studies and learning to speak Korean.

“It was a little disappointing,” the former Blue Angels pilot said after phone communication ended in March. “My friends were quick to contact me to ask, ‘What did you do?’”

As the Joint Duty Officer for the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC), McShane is one of the few American officers authorized to communicate directly with the North Korean army to arrange military-to-military meetings inside the conference room that straddles the border.

The Korean War armistice—signed 60 years ago this July—established the Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area. The armistice was designed to halt major combat operations until a peace settlement was negotiated. A peace treaty never followed.

McShane conducts his duties under the watchful eyes of the North Korean troops who stare across the border with binoculars, though his office sits in front of a North Korean guard tower just 27 feet south of the Military Demarcation Line, the de facto border. McShane quickly grew used to the constant presence of North Korean troops.

“They probably sit back behind closed doors and make jokes about me and my blue uniform as much as I make fun of their gigantic hats,” McShane said.

The DMZ is 155 miles long and 2½ miles wide. Inside it, about 30 miles north of the South Korean capital, Seoul, is the Joint Security Area, where talks are traditionally held between United Nations Command and North Korean military officers.

Freedom Highway, ringed by concertina wire and protected by South Korean army guard towers, follows the Han River north out of Seoul toward the DMZ.

On the South Korean side of the river in Paju, there are publishing houses, art studios, an English language village, an outlet mall and a unification peace park. On the other side of the river, the treeless mountains of North Korea are visible on a clear day and disappear into the pitch black at night.

Only authorized visitors can pass through the Unification Bridge checkpoint on Freedom Highway leading to Camp Bonifas, just south of the DMZ and the Joint Security Area.

UNCMAC is one of two UNC units serving at the truce village, known as Panmunjom, inside the world’s most heavily guarded border. The United Nations Command Security Battalion-Joint Security Area, which maintains security inside the village, also conducts DMZ tours. This battalion is made up of handpicked American and South Korean troops.

History of Provocations

North Korea maintains one of the largest armies in the world, much of it close to the DMZ. The totalitarian regime routinely threatens the region with its weapons of mass destruction programs and bellicose rhetoric.

Over the past 60 years, North Korea has often violated the armistice with armed attacks against United Nations Command forces. More than 450 South Korean and 100 U.S. troops have been killed in North Korean provocations since the cease-fire was signed. Separate attacks in 2010 claimed 50 lives.

An international investigation determined that a North Korean midget submarine torpedoed the South Korean military ship Cheonan in March 2010, splitting it in half and killing 46 sailors. That November, North Korea shelled a South Korean military base and civilian shops and residences on Yeongpyeong Island, killing two civilians and two South Korean marines.

Years earlier, in separate incidents inside the Joint Security Area, two U.S. Army officers were killed by North Korean troops with axes, and a South Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army was killed defending a Soviet defector near the border.

The infamous ax murders occurred on August 18, 1976, during a routine operation to trim a 100-foot poplar tree that was blocking the view between two United Nations Command guard towers. North Korean soldiers killed Captain Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lieutenant Mark Barrett during the incident.

Three days later, in response, the United Nations Command launched Operation Paul Bunyan. Instead of trimming the tree, the United Nations Command cut it down.

The 2nd Infantry Division’s 2nd Engineer Battalion was covered by security forces, South Korean special forces troops, artillery batteries, attack helicopters, B-52 bombers, fighter jets and an aircraft carrier operating off the coast. After 42 minutes, the tree came down without incident.

It was the most well-armed landscaping mission in history.

North Korea’s last lethal provocation inside the JSA occurred in 1984 when a Soviet defector on a DMZ tour dashed across the border toward freedom in South Korea. Thirty North Korean guards chased the defector into South Korea, some of the guards opening fire.

The first UNC soldiers they fought were South Korean Corporal Jang Myong-ki and U.S. Army Private 1st Class Michael A. Burgoyne. Jang and Burgoyne engaged the North Korean guards and enabled the UNC quick-reaction force to outmaneuver and trap the North Koreans.

The UNC soldiers defeated the North Korean guards and protected the defector throughout the firefight. During the incident, Jang was killed and Burgoyne was wounded. Three of the North Korean intruders were killed, five were wounded and eight were captured.

Every August and November, the Security Battalion hosts ceremonies to remember Bonifas, Barrett and Jang.

Answering the Call

Despite North Korea’s hostile rhetoric and actions, thousands of tourists visit the JSA every year. Inside the border-straddling T-2 Conference Room, the visitors walk north of the line into North Korea.

With Security Battalion troops guarding the conference room doors, North Korean troops stare through the windows at the visitors while they take their customary “I was there” photos north of the border.

Security Battalion soldiers give tours of the truce village and an observation point where visitors can see the Bridge of No Return, where POWs were exchanged at the end of combat actions, the barren landscape of North Korea and the huge towers it uses to block signals from the south.

On the way to the Joint Security Area, soldiers point out Daesungdong, or Freedom Village, where farmers grow rice and ginseng just yards from the North Korean propaganda village of Giljongdong, a large and largely vacant concrete village with a huge North Korean flag flying over it.

At Freedom Village’s elementary school, Security Battalion soldiers teach English to the students. The program is so popular there’s a waiting list for children who live outside the village.

Off duty, the soldiers spend time at the Sanctuary Club, a facility that serves as a dining facility, gymnasium and mini-post exchange. Or they play golf at the world’s most dangerous golf course—a one-hole, 192-yard, par-three surrounded by barbed wire.

UNCMAC continues to maintain the armistice and McShane stands ready to answer the phone.

“Even though the North has announced that they will no longer abide by the armistice, UNCMAC continues to serve this mission faithfully, which is a testament to our settled course,” he said. “We’re always available to talk to the [North Korean army]. All they have to do is pick up the phone.”

And if they don’t call or answer calls, McShane has an old school method to communicate messages across the border—a bull horn.

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