The Passing of Panmonjom

The name, Panmunjom, brings vivid images to the minds of Korean War veterans old enough to remember what happened there more than fifty years ago.

In an earlier article discussing the threat North Korea poses to the rest of the world (“Only Pre-emptive Attack Can Halt N. Korea,” DefenseWatch, Jan. 1, 2003), I detailed the infamous incident that happened near Panmunjom on Aug. 18, 1976, when North Korean soldiers brutally murdered two American officers and injured another eight Gis with an axe near the Bridge-of-No-Return. In that article, I also described a whole series of incidents initiated by North Korea in decades past that were designed in one way or another to humiliate the United States and bolster North Korea’s self-image at home and her stature among so-called nonaligned nations around the world.

The United States currently has 27,000 troops deployed in South Korea. These troops serve alongside South Korean fighting forces, and form a buffer between the million-man North Korean army stationed along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the communist regime from the Republic of South Korea.

Until Nov. 1, 2004, the United States also stationed 225 soldiers at Panmunjom, reinforcing a similar sized contingent of South Korean troops that made up the Joint Security Battalion. These troops were thought of as a trip-wire against any advancing North Korean units, signaling instant and devastating retaliation by U.S. and South Korean forces. The key, however, was that by tripping this wire, North Korea would have attacked the United States directly, which would open the floodgates to the full retaliatory capability of the United States.

In “my 2003 article, I argued that unless we pre-emptively neutralized North Korea’s ability to use its well-documented biological, chemical, and nuclear arsenals, sooner or later, North Korea would attack, completely bypassing the small Panmunjom garrison. Such an attack conceivably would involve North Korea wreaking biological and chemical havoc all along the DMZ and well into South Korea itself, paving the way for the million-man behemoth to overrun any remaining resistance – all the while holding her nuclear arsenal in reserve to discourage the United States from using its own nukes to even things out.

While we cannot know this for certain, of course, it’s a pretty fair bet that we don’t really need the small Panmunjom garrison any more. The South Korean military has steadily improved in technology and combat performance over the years even as North Korea’s economy has imploded. Many experts now believe that Penmunjom has become an empty symbol. Since the United States is in the process of cutting back its South Korean troop strength by 9,000 soldiers, now is a good time to remove the Panmunjom contingent as well.

Because the United States does not appear ready at this point to implement the pre-emptive actions I identified in my earlier article, it has become even more important to know what is happening behind the DMZ. The National Reconnaissance Office is using its satellite imaging capability as thoroughly as possible, and since the Soviet Union no longer poses a threat, it can concentrate its imaging and surveillance satellites on North Korea.

But the intelligence collected by the NRO satellites takes its own time to filter down to the battalion level, and so the 2nd Infantry Division’s 102nd Military Intelligence Battalion has taken up the task of local aerial reconnaissance, using the Shadow 200 Tactical UAV. The program was actually initiated about a year ago, but mechanical problems and several crashes put the program on hold while they worked the bugs out of the system.

These UAVs now patrol all along the southern side of the DMZ between 10,000 and 14,000 feet altitude. They take occasional bullets, but they are difficult to hit and capable of withstanding a lot of damage. They can’t help us prevent a biological and chemical attack, but they can give us immediate real-time information on troop movements and other elements that just might give us the edge we need in the event of a wholesale biological and chemical attack in the coming months.

So while Panmunjom is no longer Ground Zero in the decades-old military standoff on the Korean peninsula, a smaller U.S. military force remains on constant alert with its South Korean partners along a DMZ that is still a dangerous flashpoint.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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