Witness to DMZ history stepping out of the fray
Stars and Stripes June 11, 2007
SEOUL — For 41 years, Hong Hung-ki viewed the Korean armistice from the front lines.
In the midst of everything from border incursions to gestures of reconciliation, Hong served as a bridge between two worlds as a translator for the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission.
Hong, 75, retired last month.
Tensions between the Koreas remain, but they are calmer on the ground than when Hong started his job in 1966.
That year, North Korean soldiers rolled into South Korea’s Gangwon Province. When he arrived at the scene with armistice officials to investigate, the North Koreans hadn’t left.
They entered a civilian home and took a family hostage. They ambushed and killed South Korean soldiers who tried to free the family. However, the South Korean soldiers’ efforts gave the family time to escape.
“After the family got out, the (South Korean) marines used a tank gun to destroy the house and the North Koreans inside,” Hong said.
At times, the dialogue between the two sides was only slightly more civil than that fight.
Around the same time the incursions occurred, South Korea made a 20-minute video for U.S. President Lyndon Johnson that extolled South Korea’s rising standard of living.
The U.N. Command then showed the video to a North Korean delegation at the T-2 DMZ conference room. The video’s background song, “Praising Seoul,” blared on loudspeakers throughout the DMZ.
“Stop that!” a North Korean shouted toward the U.N. delegation, Hong recalls. Another North Korean picked up an ashtray and threatened to throw it.
However, the senior North Korean just sat there, watching the images of capitalist commerce.
“After that, they replaced the senior member that didn’t do anything,” Hong said.
In 1976, Hong thought open war might return to the peninsula. During the infamous “ax murders,” North Korean soldiers killed Capt. Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett while they led soldiers in trimming a large poplar tree that obstructed the view of a guard post.
Hong, who was on standby duty at the time, believes the killings were meticulously planned. Korean Service Corps workers were at the same tree the day before without any problems, he said.
The incident led to several rule changes at the Demilitarized Zone.
The Military Demarcation Line was clearly marked, and servicemembers kept to their own sides in the previously open ground of the Joint Security Agency. The move drastically reduced skirmishes, Hong said.
However, the JSA again turned into a battleground in 1984, when a Soviet defector ran across the demarcation line and North Korean soldiers pursued him.
A U.N. Command Quick Reaction Force won the firefight, reportedly killing the North Korean soldier who ordered Bonifas’ and Barrett’s deaths in 1976. However, South Korean soldier Jang Myung-gee also died in the battle.
Hong’s thoughts returned to those moments on his final day of duty in May.
“I paid tribute to the monuments of three fallen soldiers,” Hong said. “I prayed for them and presented a last salute to say goodbye.”
Dialogue between the two sides has thawed at times since the killings and since 2000, Hong said.
North Korean civil authorities wanted to send a train across the border in 2006 for the first time since the Korean War, but military officials quashed it, he said.
The North Korean military then approved the rail crossing in May, Hong said. The operation talks went smoothly, he said.
“That came from up high,” Hong said. “No one raised their voice.”
Despite those overtures, no one at the JSA has forgotten that North Korea retains one of the largest militaries in the world.
“I still think the U.S. has to stay,” Hong said of the American military presence in South Korea. “Because if the U.S. troops withdraw, Korea’s situation won’t change.”
Does that mean North Korean could one day turn back to military aggression against South Korea?
“You never know,” Hong said.