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South Korean and U.S. soldiers exit a Republic of Korea Army CH-47 helicopter Monday afternoon just outside of the Demilitarized Zone. Both Armies are stationed inside the DMZ, the border between North and South Korea. The U.S. and South Korea soldiers regularly practice evacuating from the area.

South Korean and U.S. soldiers exit a Republic of Korea Army CH-47 helicopter Monday afternoon just outside of the Demilitarized Zone. Both Armies are stationed inside the DMZ, the border between North and South Korea. The U.S. and South Korea soldiers regularly practice evacuating from the area. (Teri Weaver / S&S)

CAMP BONIFAS, South Korea — A Republic of Korea army aviation unit on Monday practiced evacuating United Nations Command troops from the Demilitarized Zone, the first time the South Koreans used their helicopters and flight crews during the practice move from the border area, according to military officers.

The exercise is a regular drill that tests how quickly the military can safely empty out the various camps and the South Korean-controlled farming village inside the DMZ, the border that separates North and South Korea.

But Monday’s drill also tested the Americans’ and South Koreans’ ability to work together as both countries move toward turning over wartime operations to the South Korean military in 2012.

Planning for the exercise began three months ago, according to the U.S. commander who runs the multination unit that oversees the Joint Security Area, the official name of the border area where North and South Korean guards still stand face-to-face.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries use the same procedures during landings and takeoffs of the South Korean CH-47s, which are American-made. That made much of the planning straightforward, said Lt. Col. John E. Rhodes, the commander of the United Nations Command Security Battalion at the Joint Security Area.

"Really it’s only the language barrier," Rhodes said. "That was the hardest thing."

In a real emergency, plans call for evacuating the 250 residents in Taesongdong, the village inside the DMZ, first, Rhodes said. Then troops and staff from other national commands in the area would go.

Most in this first wave would go by bus, and Rhodes estimates he could get them all out within two hours.

After that, the South Korean and U.S. troops stationed throughout the DMZ, including the 50 or so American soldiers at Camp Bonifas, would follow, most likely by air. The speed for that evacuation would depend on a variety of factors, including North Korea’s actions and the security of roads and bridges, Rhodes said.

On Monday, the drill began at 10 a.m. with news that the North Koreans had "reinforced" the Joint Security Area. Plans called for "sending" the buses full of civilians toward Seoul, with an estimated arrival by noon.

But in the early afternoon, plans called for 120 U.S. and South Korean troops actually to leave by air, with help from the Republic of Korea 505th Aviation Battalion.

About 120 climbed into four Chinooks at a military base just outside of the Demilitarized Zone. As the helicopters flew to Seoul and back, the soldiers from each country snapped photos of each other. Some grabbed quick naps.

Afterward, the entire group posed for a photo, and some U.S. and South Korean soldiers paired off for candid shots.

Rhodes, who took command last summer, said that leaders in Taesongdong say they have never evacuated since the armistice was signed in 1953. The military, Rhodes added, does not conduct large-scale evacuation drills of the civilians there. Even a practice evacuation, Rhodes said, would reverberate around the world.

Instead, the militaries work with the villagers but use troops to go through the scenario about twice a year, "a rehearsal to make sure we understand what’s going on," Rhodes said.


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