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Life on the DMZ

By C. Todd Lopez

SEOUL (June 29, 2008) -- Seoul, South Korea, is a huge city - some 10.3 million Koreans live there amongst modern skyscrapers, ancient temples, endless fields of high-rise apartment complexes and an expansive network of subways and trains.

Travel north out of the city, along the Han river, however, and the landscape changes as skyscrapers are replaced by farmland. There are new elements there as well: rolls of concertina wire and guard posts stretched along the Han, warning signs, and "bridges" over the highway filled with rocks and explosives -- when blown they provide roadblocks to any advance toward Seoul from the north.

Those changes in landscape occur as you move closer to the demilitarized zone, and Joint Security Area, just 35 miles north of Seoul. The DMZ is the heavily guarded strip of land, about 2.5 miles wide and 150 miles long, that divides North Korea from South Korea. The JSA is a small parcel of land within the DMZ, located near Panmunjeom village, where leaders of both countries can meet on neutral ground.

On the South Korean side of the JSA, the United Nations Command Security Battalion-Joint Security Area Battalion, provides security. The battalion is commanded by a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and is manned by some 650 troops - about 90 percent South Korean and 10 percent U.S. military.

"The UNCSB-JSA is a unique unit," said Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Ciarrocchi, senior enlisted advisor for the UNCSB-JSA. "The UNCSBJSA is a combination battalion, it's the only one of its kind. This is a reflection of the ongoing transformation of the forces in South Korea. All of the Soldiers assigned to the unit are handpicked, and they all go through an extensive evaluation process before assignment to the JSA."

The UNCSB-JSA's mission is also unique. The battalion is responsible for securing the Military Armistice Commission Headquarters area, protecting United Nations Command and Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission personnel, and for protecting all visitors to the JSA. The battalion also protects the residents of the nearby farming village of Tae Song Dong, which lies inside the DMZ.

"The battalion is responsible for implementing civil affairs and security within this unique village," Ciarrocchi said. "The residents there live under some very severe restrictions: they must be in the village by nightfall, and inside their homes with the doors and windows secure by midnight. We carry out our responsibilities through a security platoon that guards the village 24 hours a day. During the day, they provide security for the farmers while they work in the fields. At night they guard the village itself while the residents sleep."

Ciarrocchi said the Soldiers assigned to the UNCSB-JSA come face-to-face with the North Korean military on a daily basis, either inside the JSA or while on patrol along the DMZ. And while hostilities between the two nations have been on hold since an armistice was signed in 1953, the two countries are still, technically, at war. The kind of tension that reality creates means that Soldiers working within the JSA and the DMZ must always be on guard.

"You can't get complacent, you have to be ready, you have to maintain a readiness posture every day and prepare for anything that might occur," Ciarrocchi said. "Anything that has happened in the JSA, in our sector or anywhere along the DMZ, has been spontaneous."

Events do happen at the DMZ. In 1976, two U.S. Army officers, Maj. Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett, were involved in a tree-trimming operation near the military demarcation line that runs down the center of the DMZ. The two were killed by North Koreans after refusing to comply with demands by the North Koreans to stop trimming the trees.

Just eight years later, in 1984, a citizen of the Soviet Union was inside the JSA. He attempted to cross the MDL from North Korea to South Korea - to defect. In the process of trying to stop him, North Korean troops killed an American Soldier.

Because UNCSB-JSA Soldiers and North Korean military forces routinely come face to face, there are rules to prevent incidents like these from happening again, said Ciarrocchi.

An incident in the JSA involves somebody who crosses the MDL without authorization from either the north or south, he said. "But we have protocols and rules of engagement to address that. We take contingencies into consideration as we do our mission planning. Should an incident arise within our sector, we want to end it favorably, and deescalate the situation if at all possible."

Most days in the JSA and on the DMZ are not so eventful, and Soldiers of the UNCSB-JSA dedicate time to training to ensure they're ready in case something does happen. They do physical training - including combatives and tae kwon do - six days per week. The battalion also trains in marksmanship, and focuses on platoon- and squad-level battle drills and live-fire exercises.

American Soldiers are assigned to the UNCSB-JSA in year-long rotations, and Ciarrocchi said he believes the opportunity allows Soldiers to leave Korea with a real sense of what freedom is all about.

"If you were to come up here to the DMZ and stand here at night, you would see the darkness on the North Korean side, and then the lights from the south from Seoul," he said. "When you look north you see how austere and undeveloped North Korea is. Soldiers see that and get an appreciation for why they are here and serving in Korea."