At DMZ, one eye on the North, one on the returns
November 5, 2004
PANMUNJOM, Korea — Cpl. Kevin Fassl waited for election results Wednesday morning in a place where patience is a precise, never-ending mission.
Fassl is one of a few dozen U.S. soldiers hand-picked to keep watch over the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The elite group serves 26-day rotations, and each soldier’s mission focuses on keeping ready for the slightest change on the other side of the fence.
Still, Fassl knew exactly when his hometown of Chicago would be closing its polls Wednesday.
“We’re waiting,” he said shortly before leading a small group of journalists on a media tour of the Joint Security Area, where the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission meets at a table straddling the countries’ boundaries.
“The polls close in the Midwest in another 30 minutes.”
Illinois polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday, or 10 a.m. Wednesday DMZ time. By then, Fassl had recited a brief history of the 38th parallel, explained the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War and described the layout of the 4,000-meter-wide zone that now separates the two countries.
It would be a few more hours, however, before Fassl would learn his home state’s electoral votes went to Sen. John Kerry.
Earlier in the week, South Korea took over the mission of patrolling the DMZ. The U.S. military still plays a role, though the number of U.S. soldiers assigned to Camp Bonifas is shrinking. Panmunjom has more than 600 soldiers in uniform — 93 percent of them South Koreans, Capt. Ryan Roberts said.
“We had about 150 soldiers in June,” said Roberts, who joined Fassl on part of Wednesday’s media tour. “We’re going to get down to 40. Now, it’s less than 100.”
The U.S. soldiers typically serve a year along the DMZ, while their Republic of Korea Army counterparts serve two. Fassl has five months left, and for the past month he’s been assigned to give tours six days a week to tourists and journalists. Last year, about 150,000 people took the tour.
Before Fassl began leading tours, his work schedule looked more like this: 15 straight days split equally among three posts watching and preparing for North Korean action.
“You catch a couple of hours of sleep when you can,” he said.
The next 10 days are spent training or on alert status at Bonifas. Then, after one day dedicated to maintenance, each soldier gets four days off.
While the soldiers are in the midst of that 15-day watch, they get few chances to hear about the outside world.
“It’s pretty isolated,” Fassl said, adding that they have access to radio, but no television.
Despite that schedule, Fassl said he and his friends at Bonifas were given every opportunity to vote.
“I know my ballot’s in,” he said. “A couple of my buddies didn’t vote. And I told them: ‘No complaints for the next four years.’”