I was painfully reminded of the 38th Parallel and Demilitarized Zone in my motherland Korea while I was watching the movie “Bridge of Spies,” particularly the part where the Berlin Wall was being constructed, dividing Communist East Germany from West Germany, as rifle-holding German soldiers looked on. The critical postwar period when South Korea’s existence was seriously threatened by the North Korea was between 1966 and 1969.
Some historians call this three-year-period the Second Korean War. It was when Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of today’s North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, saw a golden opportunity to forcibly reunite the two Koreas, knowing that the South Korean military power was weakened as more than 50,000 South Korean troops were fighting in Vietnam and that Americans would have no time to worry about their “puppet” South Korea.
It was during this period when the North Koreans began to dig massive tunnels under the 38th Parallel, so spacious that an infantry division could pass through and reach Seoul in one hour. But they were discovered by the highly trained border security team and the second invasion never happened. Still, 43 American servicemen, 299 South Koreans, and 397 North Korean soldiers lost their lives along the DMZ during this period.
To most Americans in those days, Koreans reminded them of the Korean War. Seeing my Asian face, people would ask me, then a newcomer to the U.S., “Are you a Japanese?” (Or Chinese.) When I told the truth, their expression turned somewhat cold. Some walked away but others revealed painfully that their husbands or brothers or uncles had died or were injured in Korea. How I wish I could tell them that I wasn’t responsible for the war and share with them what we Koreans had gone through because of the North Koreans!
Two major incidents at the DMZ shocked not only the Korean immigrants in the U.S., but the whole world: The Blue House Raid and the Pueblo Incident. In late January 1968, 31 North Korean commandos disguised as South Korean National guards penetrated the area near the presidential mansion known as “the Blue House” in Seoul to assassinate the South Korean President Park Chung-hee, the father of today’s South Korean President Park Geun-Hye.
But the South Korean police, who had been informed of a suspicious bunch heading in that direction, were waiting for them in a combat position and killed 29 of 31.
Overland Park resident and veteran Gordon Faubel holds a piece of the mystery surrounding one of the commandos that escaped death. Faubel was a captain in charge of air-defense operations that assisted a Nike Hercules battalion between Inchon city and Suwon from February 1967 and March 1968. “One day in January 1968,” he recalled, “I received notice that one of our HAWK (a missile system) sites was about to be attacked by suspicious gunmen, and we tensed up. It turned out that the bunch was North Korean Special Forces who came to murder the South Korean president, but instead, they were all killed by the South Korea policemen, except two. And one of them accidentally scrambled into our well-protected site, alarming everyone! We promptly handed him over to the South Korean police.”
During his 13 months service in Korea, the security was extremely tight, he said. “Intelligence informed us that the Nike sites were always a target of the North Korean snipers, and it was true. Once we actually saw the South Korean civilians hanging a North Korean man they had captured near one of our sites.”
Within days of the Blue House Raid, the North Koreans captured the U.S. Navy Pueblo spy ship, claiming that it entered their waters. In a matter of weeks, Faubel said, the U.S. armed forces increased the number of air fighter planes from a handful to 800, just in case! On Dec. 23, 11 months after the Pueblo’s capture, U.S. officials “admitted” the ship’s intrusion into North Korean territory, apologized for the action, and even pledged never to repeat such action — in order to get the hostages home.
The 82 hostages returned to their beloved homeland of America for Christmas. Two decades later, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall crumbled down by the blows of sledgehammers struck by Germans on both sides. But the Korean peninsula is still divided by the DMZ, a strip of land lined with checkpoints and embedded with mines, along the 38th parallel. And 32-year old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un still threatens the world with his nuclear ambition.
On this Veterans Day, I thank all American veterans once more — including those who perished at the DMZ during the “Second Korean War” —for granting us South Koreans freedom.