Reporter's Notebook: North Korean Border

July 17, 2006 8:37 AM
North Korean Border

He stared us down, a glare like I haven’t seen in some time. A North Korean soldier and several of his comrades, in a time of high tension, are standing just feet from me and within inches of an American soldier, a true symbol of a 50-year standoff that plays out along the Line of Demarcation every single day. His scowl is clear and he scans my crew and the soldiers around us, trying to make eye contact and attempting to get us to avert our eyes. It is somewhat of a childish attempt, but at the same time a vivid reminder that the separation between North and South, here on Korean Peninsula, runs much deeper than a few feet, or what I believe is a feeble stare.

We have come here to get a view so few ever see. I have seen the pictures and studied the war and the armistice between nations. But to actually experience this border site in person is eerie, especially in this time of missile launches and threats from the closed nation, now just a couple of strides away.

David Palmer, our civilian military guide, tells us that waving and pointing are against the rules. In fact, there is a dress code for this area because the North will take pictures and then use them as propaganda within its own borders. Several times during our hour-long visit along this line of conflict, I hear North Korean soldiers speaking loudly from guard towers half hidden behind trees and bushes. They speak in Korean so I don’t understand their words, but I am told they are trying to illicit any response at all; anything that they can use as a war on their own people. In the past, the North has used pictures and even taped words to “show” its people the problems with people who live outside their secretive society. It is an attempt at propaganda and one they will gladly use.

The line of demarcation that separates us is at times is an 18-inch wide sidewalk that runs perpendicular to older, baby-blue colored buildings. The United Nations Command built the three small facilities to provide a locale for talks with the north. There are also two silver buildings in the same line, basically cut in half by the Line of Demarcation and built by the North. Soldiers believe that weapons are stashed inside, and as of now, they are chained at the door handles.

We are allowed inside the buildings, called "Conference Row," and because the line is not drawn inside the walls, we can legally walk onto the North Korean side. In an odd twist, both sides are allowed to access these buildings for VIP tours and once we are finished, North Korean troops march down to the same building and enter from their side, while others stand guard outside the building alongside the cement Line of Demarcation. South Korean and American troops literally stand shoulder to shoulder. Soldiers from the North do their best to intimidate, staring at us, and at their South Korean foes, trying all the while to look menacing.

It is an interesting sight to see, because the North troops are generally shorter men, maybe 5 feet 5 inches tall and with a slender build, and their uniforms look like something out of the Cold War or Eastern Block (I suspect they are leftovers from the old Soviet regime). In contrast, the South Koreans pick their tallest and largest troops to guard this border. I am 6 feet 3 inches and many tower over me. They also rattle as they walk, and we are told that ball bearings are rolled into their pant cuffs as to make their army sound larger when they march.

Our trip allows us to meet numerous American, and even some British, troops that are assigned to this checkpoint. In response to the recent missile launches by the North, they all agree that it just reminds everyone on our side to be vigilant as they enforce the armistice agreement that has stood here since 1953. As one sergeant says, “You always know that this is one of the most dangerous places in the world, but when Kim Jong-Il’s army sends off missiles, it wakes you up.” He continues, “What may become routine over time now has a very serious reminder.”

July 16, 2006 9:28 AM

It is about 5 a.m. Sunday morning in Korea and the troops are on high alert. People wake at this easy hour still a bit uneasy. We awoke early this morning just in time to hear the new United Nations resolution condemning the North Koreans for the missile launches last week. Before we had even set up our live location on the roof of our hotel, the North had already denounced the U.N. and threatened to launch more missiles in the near future. So before sunrise, the rhetoric had already been taken up a notch, and the people here in the south would soon awake to more anxiety as their secretive neighbor to the north continues to thumb its nose at the world community.

When you speak to people here in Seoul and you also meet American troops, none seem worried that the troops of Kim Jong Il would come across the demilitarized zone and begin a war that has been in standby for more than 50 years. Most of the concern surrounds the possibility that the North, in an effort to keep their regime intact, would continue the missile launches and that one of those antiquated missiles could come down on the south in one of the densely populated areas. As one Korean man tells me, “There would be so many casualties.”

As we set up our video phone on the 39th floor roof, the torrential rain continues. It is monsoon season here in Asia, and flooding has caused all sorts of problems and made life here a bit difficult here in recent days. In fact, it rains so hard that our umbrellas do little to deter the water and after each live shot we find ourselves soaked to the bone. The rain is also causing some signal difficulties with our video phone, heavy downpours cause it to waver, and the rain is so hard at times the televisions in the hotel pixalate as the rain interrupts the satellite feed. Our FOX photographer Eric Barnes and Producer Chris Spinder agree that we don’t see rain like this in the States unless we are covering a hurricane.

Like five negotiators taking part in the six-nation talks, we await any word from the North Koreans. Are they going to allow us to visit this week? Or have they changed their minds and plans and once again gone to total isolation? That seems to be a worry here along with the thick, soupy cloud cover. Can satellites detect any missile movement since the U.N. resolution has passed? Will the North once again fire off their antiquated weapons in an effort to gain world respect? We await word, we await any actions, and we await sunshine.

July 15, 2006 6:58 AM

We finally got a few hours of shut eye and we were off again, this time to Youngsan Army Garrison in the capital city of Seoul. Here we will meet with American troops and also with pastor Rick Warren, the author of the bestselling book, "A Purpose Driven Life." Warren is in the region to preach and to work with pastors from all over Asia. We have covered him several times before, most recently his wife Kay’s HIV efforts, and this time more than 2,000 people on this base have packed the Collier Field House. Named for Cpl. John Collier for battle in the Korean Conflict, it stands of a reminder how long American troops have been here, standing shoulder to shoulder with the South Koreans and eye-to-eye with troops across the DMZ.

Warren’s message this day is a familiar yet simple one: the five things Christians can do to live a better life. He has also been invited to preach in North Korea next year for the 100th anniversary of a Christian awakening. That is somewhat of an ironic invitation, since the North has done just about everything they can to abolish all forms of religion, and over the years have persecuted and even executed those who dare to question this rule. Warren tells me that some people might oppose his trip to Pyongyang next year, but he isn’t a politician, he just wants top bring hope, faith, and fellowship to a people for so many years have kept down.

The base is like so many overseas we have visited before — masonite blocks are the carpentry of choice, and security is tight. During our time in the field house we meet Gen. B.B. Bell, the new leader of the base, and I also bump into Col. Franklin Childress. In Kuwait, prior to the Iraqi Freedom Operation, Childress ran the embed preparation. At that time, he issued me my I.D. card and worked with FOX News and other media organizations from around the world. Since we travel the world for FOX and have done so now for nearly five years, it is neat to bump into familiar faces from other parts of the world, especially members of the military.

No matter where we go here in Seoul, it is hot. You can’t seem to escape the humidity.

Even as Warren gave his sermon, the thick air weighed everyone down. Outside downpours continue to drench the city, this is typhoon season in Korea and it is clear we will get wet, even if the rain stops.

The troops we meet at the Warren event are from all parts of our country and are joined by many friendly Korean faces. We quickly realize that these troops are on high alert and some of the people are a bit uneasy. As one lieutenant commander tells me, any time you are in Korea, there is always the chance the North could do something to try and provoke the rest of the world. He also says people right now are a bit upset about the missile launched more than a week ago, but they can’t show emotion. They can’t and wont do anything to allow the North to think they are making any headway in their standoff against the world.

July 14, 2006 9:44 AM

Twelve and a half hours after we left on a 747 from Los Angeles, the hazy skies of Seoul can be seen from our windows. The city, one of the most densely populated in the world, looks massive. Small, lush, green islands dot a coastline already jagged with inlets and bays.

At 5:00 p.m. local time, we cross through this recently built airport and pass customs without a hitch. We note that, of the combined 20 countries or so the members of our crew have visited, this experience was the quickest by far.

Our fixer, a local who speaks English and knows the lay of the land, is waiting with sign in hand as we emerge into the thick and sticky Asian air. The drive into the city lasts about an hour — we cross suspension bridges that remind me of Tampa Bay. Along the way we see the old and new that mesh together in the prosperous south.

In some places, emerald rice fields roll into eight-story buildings, freeways also seem to cut a path as they wind towards Seoul. The city reminds me of Hong Kong, or Tokyo. In fact, in places, Seoul could pass for L.A., except for the signage. There are American restaurants interspersed with Korean ones, and in this age of Internet and immediate travel, it is clear how small our world has become. That is actually one thing that makes this story so interesting — when you consider that just a few miles to the north lies one of the most secluded and unstable countries the modern world has ever seen.

We are still uncertain if we will get into the north. The feeling and the information coming via a complicated web in Kim Jong Il's government changes by the minute, just like the talks between nations about North Korea’s efforts to gain nuclear power and a long range missile, talks that have again broken down. As we make our way through the city streets and grab some food, it is easy to understand the uneasiness that exists among the people here. The North has fired missiles in recent weeks, and their capability is antiquated. One could easily stray off course and if it came down in a Seoul neighborhood, the damage would be significant, the death toll likely high.

We are now going on 26 hours awake. Before we finally get to bed, we get the chance to meet the subject of one our future reports, the pastor Rick Warren. He has been invited by the north to visit next spring for a Christian revival of sorts. He has spent several days preaching across South Korea, and is supposed to meet with representatives from the North this coming week. He too, is in limbo.

July 13, 2006 3:12 PM

We have been in standby for a couple of days, waiting for the North Koreans to grant our crew access. I have actually been in touch with several men in their embassy in Beijing, all coincidentally named Mr. Lee.

Our crew consists of three — myself, along with photographer Eric Barnes and producer Chris Spinder. Barnes and I have done international work before, covering the South Asian tsunami.

The Korean conflict has heated up in recent months, and as we go to a region long familiar with strife, we are unsure what to expect from the North Koreans. Our South Korean contacts agree.

Adam Housley is an FNC correspondent based in L.A.