Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Missing my Children:
Due to a number of extenuating circumstances a few weeks have passed since I have been able to write in my blog. I apologize to any out there who might have become accustomed to hearing from me through this medium and vow to do better in the future. Fortunately this evening I have been able to dedicate enough time to perhaps bring you up to speed on what has been going on in our lives here in South Korea, the land of the morning calm, as it is often referred to.
With all that has been going on over in Korea in my new assignment in G9 Civil Affairs and for that matter in my life over the past couple of years, I have hardly had time to catch my breath. With hardly a break in-between my last deployment to Iraq and my new military assignment here, it seems that I have been on a perpetual ride, traveling through one culture and place in time to another. I was home for only a little over a month before I had to jump on another plane flying me the other way around the world, to a place so different in every way from Iraq.
Without boring some of you who already know the situation of my travels here, I have to say that coming here at this time in my life, under these circumstances, has been nothing short of a miracle and now in hindsight I can see that it was definitely meant to be. Unfortunately for my family, this personal journey of mine has come with its sacrifices and challenges, forcing me to be away from all of them for long periods of time. At some point I hope they will understand how necessary of a separation it has been for me personally.
I do miss them deeply and think about them every day of my life, no matter how busy or preoccupied I might be. For the sake of my own sanity, I am forced at times to get caught up in my work, so as not to be constantly worrying about their wellbeing. The flame of my love for each of them burns brightly, never flickering or dimming and I can only hope they each know that. In that I have the least amount of contact with my daughter Dana and her daughter Katella, I can honestly say I yearn for them the most, wishing they would take the time to send me an email or call me more often.
Fortunately, two of my sons, Matthew and Michael with his family, have been able recently to spend some time visiting us here in South Korea and my third son, Daniel, will be flying over sometime next week, if all goes well. It has made a huge difference to all of us to be able to spend some quality time together, in their mother’s homeland. They all appear to have gained many new insights into the culture their Mother grew up in and perhaps a better understanding of why she is the way she is.
The Boys are in Town:
A Day on the DMZ
The bus pulled away from the Dragon Hotel inside the confides of the US army base we refer to as Yong San, or Dragon Hill. It was early, the air still quite cool from the lack of sunlight the night before, the weather of Korea still not sure if it has decided to be spring or not. With a certain amount of excitement and perhaps trepidation of the unknown (for those that had not been there before), we headed north to the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, less than an hour away. With Grandmother, my wife, watching the baby back at the house, the four of us, my two sons and Michael’s wife Kaitlin, were looking forward to a full day of touring the DMZ, the line separating North and South Korea. In a state of continual armistice, for the past 60 years the line of demarcation has separated these two countries, one a totalitarian, single-party Stalinist dictatorship and the other a thriving democratic/capitalistic state, now one of the top ten economies in the world.
With a plate full of KimBap and a few other Korean goodies to tide us over, we ventured on to catch a glimpse of what life is like on the other side of the line and to better understand what it might be like to have an enemy so close to Seoul, one of the largest cities in the world.
Within a few minutes we had left the urban sprawl of Seoul, traveling into more rural surroundings, out in the countryside of rice fields, small villages, and densely forested mountains. Our tour guide came on the intercom to inform us we had passed through the southern boundary of the DMZ, into no-mans land, populated mostly by migrating birds who have transformed this area into their own private refuge or sanctuary.
Looking across the DMZ, northward, one could easily notice the striking contrast between the treeless mountains of the north and the thickly forested mountains of the south. After many years of drought, floods, and a shortage of heating fuel for those many freezing cold North Korean winter nights, the North Koreans have been forced to cut down any available trees to heat their wood and warm their homes.
Moving northward through the DMZ, towards Pan Mun Jpm, our tour guide welcomed us to Camp Bonifas.
“Camp Bonifas is a United Nations Command military post located 400 meters south of the southern boundary of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. It is 2400 meters south of the military demarcation line and lies within the Joint Security Area (JSA), also known as Panmunjom. The Military Demarcation Line (or 38th Parallel) forms the border between South Korea (the Republic of Korea) and North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).
Camp Bonifas is home to the United Nations Command Security Battalion- Joint Security Area, whose primary mission is to monitor and enforce the Armistice Agreement of 1953 between North and South Korea. Republic of Korea and United States Forces Korea soldiers (known as “security escorts”) conduct the United Nations Command DMZ Orientation Program tours of the JSA and surrounding areas. The camp has a gift shop which sells DMZ- and JSA-related souvenirs.
The camp, formerly known as Camp Kitty Hawk, was renamed on August 18, 1986, in honor of U.S. Army Captain Arthur G. Bonifas (posthumously promoted to major), who along with 1LT Mark T. Barrett, were killed by North Korean soldiers in the “Axe Murder Incident”.
There is a par 3 one-hole “golf course” at the camp, which includes an Astroturf green and is surrounded on three sides by minefields. Sports Illustrated called it “the most dangerous hole in golf” and there are reports that at least one shot exploded a land mine.
Kevin Sullivan of The Washington Post reported in 1998 that Camp Bonifas was a “small collection of buildings surrounded by triple coils of razor wire just 440 yards south of the DMZ” that, were it not for the minefields and soldiers, would “look like a big Boy Scout camp.”
Our bus pulled up to a large granite building, our guide referred to as the Freedom house, through which we walked in order to see the small blue-roofed buildings of PanMunJom, where the Military Armistice Commission still periodically hold talks with North Korea.
One travel guide on the Internet put it this way,
“Once you have been given your guest badge you are driven the short distance to Panmunjom itself. Until the 1950′s this was a small farming hamlet, nowadays the village has been replaced by some grand buildings surrounding three blue huts. In all honesty, there is nothing of real interest to see here, what you’re paying for is the chance to see the Cold War at full freeze. From the marching North Korean guards looking at you through binoculars to the South Korean elite troops with mirrored sunglasses (for extra intimidation) and dozens of chains swinging from their trousers(to fool the North Koreans that there are more soldiers around than there really are) this is a one-off experience. Of particular note is the P’anmun-gak building on the North Korean side of the JSA. Built in 1969 on the highest point of elevation in Panmunjom, this is a full one meter wider than its equivalent Freedom House(built by the South Koreans in 1965). An ornate looking three-story building with huge windows, P’anmungak is nothing but an elaborate facade with a depth of only six meters.
You’ll be taken from Freedom House into the hut where the Military Armistice Commission still periodically hold talks. If you saw the episode of ‘Full Circle’ in which Michael Palin came here then you’ll already be familiar with the interior of the hut(a table is situated in the middle of the room with flags at both ends and microphone cables-denoting the border between North and South-running across the centre). If you remember the contents of the program you’ll also be more than vaguely aware of the speech the escort makes after you crowd around the table: “Those of you on my left are now in the Communist North Korea, while those of you on my right are relatively safe in the Democratic South”. Under the watchful eye of two South Korean soldiers you are then free to cross the border by walking around the right hand side of the table. Throughout, the soldiers remain still in an extremely menacing looking Taekwondo stance.
One funny story that sums up the atmosphere at the Armistice meetings relates to the respective flags of the two nations: One day, a flag was brought in by one side that was larger than the flag of the other. At the next meeting, this smaller flag was replaced by a flag larger than the at of the other side. On alternate meeting days, the respective sides brought in continually larger flags until they were finally too big to get into the building. Only then were the flags limited to their present size.
Before you leave the JSA you’ll also get a chance to see the North Korean community called “Propaganda Village” by the US. It’s a long distance away but you should be able to make out a number of high-rise buildings (hollow structures complete with painted windows we were told) as well as the world’s largest flag. Hung from a 160 meter tall flagpole, and proportionately large-the flag is so heavy that it tears in half whenever it rains. Apparently, the only sign of life in the village is the man who comes to take it down at the first sign of rainfall!
Of course, as with all things in this place, what one side does the other tries to do better. In this vein, you’ll be driven past Taesong-dong (termed “Freedom Village”) on your way back to Camp Boniface. Home to 200 inhabitants, the villagers are exempt from all taxes and national military service and farm an average of 17 acres of land (as opposed to 3 in the rest of the country). To live here your family had to have resided in Panmunjom prior to the outbreak of the Korean War.
One Very Unusual Thing Happened:
As we stood on the back steps of the Freedom House, looking past the several small huts of PanMun Jom, across the actual line of demarcation, towards the tall three-story building façade of P’anmungak, for the first time ever from my several trips, a crowd of North Koreans, mostly in military attire, had gathered on the steps on their side, appearing to be having their own tour of the DMZ. Then suddenly, two North Korean guards turned and marched towards the other side in traditional North Korean fashion, arms swinging side to side and legs thrust out in front of them step by step. It was definitely a first for me.
Entering the main blue-roofed building, we were actually able to see the negotiating table, which is split in half as the line of demarcation actually travels straight through the table, allowing you to stand in South Korea then move to the other side of the table to step foot in North Korea. All the time North Korean guards were peering in at us through the glass windows on the North Korean side. It was quite a treat for all of us there that day.
A Day at the Orphanage:
In hopes of delivering a large box of Tupperware toys donated by Tupperware Sales Agents back home, when my son Michael and his wife Kaitlin were in town, I had saved up these toys for such a special occasion. Taking advantage of their presence in South Korea, we picked a time one afternoon, to travel over to the orphanage to make the special delivery.
Through the steep winding backstreets from our house to South Mountain, we made our way over to the South Mountain orphanage. Up a hill and past a large somewhat famous girls high school, we finally entered the gates of the orphanage. At first glance it was a small but clean compound of several buildings, a few buildings obviously living quarters for the 60 some children ages 0 through 20. Aware of our approximate arrival, a small greeting party had gathered in front of the main office.
After being ushered into what appeared to be the main office, we met with the Managing Director and his staff, who at once proceeded to give us a tour of the facility, along with introducing us, at each step of the way, to the children living on the grounds. Arriving at cleaning time, we were able to witness first hand the well-behaved, well-mannered and disciplined nature of the children.
Our first stop was to the nursery where some 7 or 8 infants, ages 6 months to 16 months, had been placed to receive the mostly infant toys we had brought. Somewhat in awe of our unusual appearance and anxious to play with the toys, all of the infants remained relatively quite and well behaved. My own granddaughter, Maleah, was quick to jump into the middle of the others to help out in distributing the toys, not fully ware herself what was going on.
They were all so adorable, but yet for one reason or another had been abandoned by their biological mother and father. With no hope for adoption, the children are destined to be raised by the orphanage staff, who do their best I am sure to offer each child as much love and attention as is humanly possible. Each child is allowed to stay at the facility until they are able to graduate from college or decide to leave after high school.
It was a very special day for all of us, especially for my son and daughter-in-law, who were responsible for sending the toys to us in the first place. The children were all so wonderful, it was hard to leave when the time came. We were grateful to have been able to share a little bit of happiness with those very special children.
Love to All
“Doing it the Wiggles Way”
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