Secret living in the Shadows – serving at the North Korea border

Secret living in the Shadows – serving at the North Korea border – Brief Article

Robert Benson

With an Office Only 20 Feet from North Korea, this DMZ Sailor Gives New Meaning to the Term, “Living on the Edge.”

Speakers blare North Korean propaganda, uncharted minefields are steps away and a red phone rings as the trembling hand of YN2 Isaac Lopez reaches to answer it.

“What have I gotten myself into,” he might scribe in a diary that doesn’t exist. “I can see movement in the gray buildings day and night, and they’re armed North Koreans with binoculars. They watch me. They call out my name on the loudspeakers. From the gutted remains of a building at the end of the bridge of no return,’ where even I can’t go, they’re watching.

“Across the border, I can see a ghost town. Nobody lives there, but at night, lights come on in the windows …”

Once the MCPON visited Lopez and told him he was courageous.

This is a place Lopez knows well. Every week, he leaves the comfort of his barracks room in trendy Seoul, Korea, and travels one hour north. He arrives at the spookiest place on the face of the earth: the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. AKA, the DMZ.

It’s a heavily patrolled area, the only part between the two countries where there’s no fence. The mine fields, hidden tunnels, checkpoints and areas with ominous names like “the bridge of no return,” make up this uninviting landscape.

“At the ‘bridge of no return,’ we sometimes go looking. We slowly walk halfway across, but no further. There’s gutted out shacks on the other side, with armed North Koreans inside. They watch us. We move away, but don’t turn our backs as we leave the bridge.”

In the center of the DMZ, in the hush of the Joint Duty Office (JDO), Lopez quietly monitors communication attempts from communist North Koreans. He keeps an eye on the red hotline. His mission is to initiate action should a summit be needed. He’s so close to the North Korean border the fog from his breath is the only thing that safely crosses the zone in the cold early morning. From his little cubical — a nondescript darkened room with TV monitors airing North Korean propaganda, CNN and other news shows, he watches the watchers. Looking through a pair of big eyes at the communist buildings across the line, Lopez often sees a mirror image looking back.

Binoculars, bullhorns, walkie-talkies and armed escorts are forever by his side.

“When I first got here it was pretty spooky,” recalled Lopez. “It was me, by myself, at night, 20 feet away from the Korean People’s Army.” Often he hears explosions from the North Korea side, but they became so common he didn’t even notice them after a while. He said being on a ship at General Quarters in the worst part of the world has nothing on this — living on the edge, literally, has hardened him.

Villagers near Lopez’s compound are forbidden to leave their homes at night. At the JDO, Lopez can never leave the building alone; he always has to travel in with at least one other person. Lopez and other Americans can’t even walk from building to building on the compound, he has to drive, no matter how short the commute.

Lopez knows well the history of the DMZ, a 2.5-mile wide buffer that runs across the peninsula along the famed 38th Parallel. He knows the zone was created when the Korean War ended in 1953, not with a full peace treaty, but a fragile armistice. He knows that 2 million South Korean soldiers and 37,000 Americans remain vigilant on the line where he works.

But to really understand this place, consider Lopez’s commute from Seoul. During the one-hour drive, city turns to town, and town turns to country.

Some have actually crossed the border from South to North Korea. It’s a one-way trip though, none have returned. “They’re probably shot immediately,” said one official. As recently as 1984 that happened; a Soviet tour guide defected from the North, came sprinting across the line to the South, resulting in a 20-minute firefight with one South Korean and three North Korean soldiers dead.

With each passing mile northward, becomes less and the terrain becomes more barren; and life more militarized. The double barbed wire fence, which separates the two Koreas, parallels the road. Armed South Koreans in towers, and roving dog patrols monitor the line.

Lopez said tensions at the DMZ have eased a bit since this year’s July summit between the two countries; still though, it’s what most call a spooky place. Twenty-four-seven, a contingent of South Korean soldiers wear ‘Men in Black’-like sunglasses and battle helmets, and stand in a modified tae-kwon-do stance, 15 feet from the actual border between the two countries; observing. The stance to project power, the sunglasses to intimidate. At the same time, North Koreans are doing the same, watching the watchers, taking notes, blaring obscure Korean-speak on loudspeakers.

The two sides never really speak, though. They just watch, stare and observe, sometimes within arms reach of each other.

“Sometimes they’ll blare my name over loudspeakers over and over. They got my name from my nametag, by using binoculars,” Lopez said.

And sometimes, about once a month, a red phone in the JDO office rings, tape recorders roll, Lopez gulps, then answers. The call to that phone, always from the North Koreans, usually means something is up.

“Living up here is way past unique,” said Lopez. “I was never into world politics, but now I’m in the middle of it.”

Benson is a photojournalist assigned to All Hands.

COPYRIGHT 2000 U.S. Navy

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group