Guarding the frontier of a frozen war

Korea 2007

By Elizabeth Sullivan

June 09, 2009

Published in The Plain Dealer

Panmunjom, South Korea - There will be no Veterans Day parades for Sgt. Frank Tony Saccomen. No graveyard visits or ceremonies with older veterans describing their wars.

That's because Saccomen, of Hubbard, Ohio, and about 50 other U.S. military personnel are deployed in one of the oldest war zones in the world, where every day is still a day at war.

Camp Bonifas is the northernmost outpost of the U.S. military in Korea, abutting the truce village of Panmunjom, which literally straddles the border with North Korea.

The camp was named for a U.S. Army captain axed to death in 1976, when a swarm of North Korean soldiers attacked a tree-trimming detail near the "bridge of no return."

These days, despite the proximity of the two heavily armed sides, it has become more a kabuki-style war of words and symbols rather than the old version of firepower and butchery. And the 33-year-old Saccomen is more likely to be attacked verbally by North Koreans, who jeer from just across the line to try to get Americans to violate regulations by talking back.

With relatively few soldiers deployed on either side of the truce village, everyone knows everyone else's routines.

Right in the center of Panmunjom, a strip of concrete marks where North Korean territory begins. Usually, the North Koreans watch the line from the upper stories of a large, imposing building on their side known as "Panmungak."

"If you go right up to the concrete, they'll come down and stare at you with binoculars from just two feet away," laughs Saccomen, who has been at Bonifas about four years.

"Or if you ask someone to take your photo and stand right on the edge of the concrete for a while, they'll come down out of the Panmungak and stand right behind you" and you can get them in the picture, he adds.

Like the other soldiers assigned to the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom, the multilingual Saccomen, a communications specialist, was specially selected for the duty. Then he agreed to stay on past the end of his one-year tour, despite the tedium, isolation, long hours and limited company.

"You save a lot of money up here," says Saccomen, who has been in the Army for nine years, after a prior stint with the Navy. "There's no bars. There's no shops. There's no women. Did I mention there's no women?"

Actually, there are some women at the camp from other branches of service, assigned to other military jobs.

But for the most part, the Army team sticks together.

"We're family here," said Saccomen's fellow communications expert, Specialist Malcolm Torres, 20, of Houston, Texas.

About the worst it ever gets are the periodic arguments over whether to watch football or the Democratic presidential debates on the 62-channel cable television in the PX.

Friday, over fried chicken and catfish shared with visiting U.S. journalists on a trip sponsored by the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the other soldiers surprised Specialist Emanuel Watson of Bronx, N.Y., with a fancy birthday cake for his 21st birthday.

When the Korean War ended more than 54 years ago without a formal peace agreement, Panmunjom became the terminus for both countries. The old Highway One that went from south to north got sliced in half, with a no-man's land and the "bridge of no return" in its middle.

And with Seoul - South Korea's capital and largest city - just 35 miles away, the highway further south was heavily fortified and rigged with huge concrete "rock drops" to block tank traffic in the event of another hot war.

Yet these days, the camp has been bypassed by a new Highway One - a non-booby-trapped, four-lane divided highway carrying heavy traffic in fuel oil, fertilizer and other goods from South to North. The highway connects to a South Korean-built and -run industrial zone in North Korea that is home to 52 companies. Meanwhile, the North is exporting its own products to the South, including prepared garlic and high-grade sand for concrete.

And after decades of wild growth and little disturbance because of the landmines and military standoff, the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea has become a haven for unusual birds - including giant steel-blue-and-white Manchurian cranes and migrating Siberian stellar sea eagles that can have a 9-to-12-foot wingspan. There was even an unconfirmed report of a tiger in the region recently.

With a million North Korean soldiers within striking distance of Seoul, patrolling the border remains a serious business. But, says Saccomen, "the hardest part when we go on patrol is paying attention to what I'm supposed to be doing and not getting distracted by the natural beauty."