Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin DMZ


January 1, 1984 -- So begins a new year (and a prosperous one to you and yours). In our cover story this month we celebrate the advent of 1984 with a crystal-ball look at what frequent flyers can expect from the airline business this year. In putting this feature together, we were reminded of several recent experiences that make not only projections but even timely reporting difficult for a monthly magazine.

It is a treacherous exercise to write a column or feature two months or more before the cover date. Our November issue, for example, had just gone to press when Continental filed for Chapter 11, making our story on competition at Denver out-of-date before it ever saw ink. Easter and TWA decided to "merge" their frequent flyer bonus program just about the time you were reading our latest update on the free-flight programs.

My October column also comes to mind. In it I referred to an 11-year-old child’s prattle about Russia’s peaceful intentions. No sooner was the issue in the mail than the Soviets destroyed a Korean jetliner in flight, sending 269 innocent lives to a senseless death.

I wondered, selfishly what the October reader would think—even fleetingly—about my drawing attention to a child’s naïve remark when pieces of KAL 007 were being recovered from the sea. Maybe nothing, but I felt somewhat uneasy over the chronology of events. Even now news developments conspire to cast a shadow of uncertainty over this column. Let me explain.

Late in September I flew to Korea to attend a conference. (I was pleased that a few of the delegates canceled as a result of the KAL tragedy.) I was favorably impressed by the cosmopolitan nature of Seoul, by the warmth the Koreans displayed to visitors, by the intensity of local business activity and by the country’s unexpected potential for tourism.

If there was a single highlight for me, it was a day spent at Panmunjom with a small group of press and international travel officials. Panmunjom is at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which divides the two Koreans—hardly a garden spot for the average tourist but certainly a destination worth a few hours’ investment.

With us at Panmunjom, and leading a sense of history (I exaggerate), were Margaret Truman and her husband Clifton Daniel. She, of course, is the only child of Harry Truman, the man whose no-nonsense courage confronted the Communist aggression in Korea. The unconfirmed sense among my colleagues was that this was Mrs. Daniel’s first visit to Korea.

American businessmen visit Korea in significant numbers, as do a growing number of pleasure travelers. There is certainly enough to see and do, particularly if you’re into shopping, seeing some surprisingly pretty countryside or a quick jolt of Cold War realities. There’s no doubt in my mind that Korea fits nicely into a leisure itinerary; it won’t qualify as a single-stop tourism destination.

Among the people who frequently visit Korea are veterans of the "police action" of the early 1950s. (Let me say that I qualify as a Korean War veteran, having been drafted in September 1953, after the signing of the armistice, but my Army kept me in Missouri and Arkansas. I’ve always been mildly intrigued to see what—if anything—I missed by not being shipped out. Admittedly, I wasn’t curious then.)

When I accosted my typewriter late on an October Sunday, having just watched the New York Jets lose to Cleveland, I caught a few moments of radio news. The lead item was about a bomb blast in Rangoon, Burma, which killed a good many members of a visiting South Korean delegation, including four cabinet members and two top government advisors, as well as narrowly missing Korea’s president, Chin Doo Hwan. No blame was placed at that early moment, but the South Koreans were convinced of the culpability of the North.

In a sense, this outrageous act also shattered a key element of my column. I had planned to write that the equation at the DMZ was working, no matter how fragile the peace, how deep the hostility (and it is ever deep), how uncertain the temper of the very moment. The DMZ is a powder-keg situation, if there ever was one. Now no longer certain of my approach, I decided to proceed on the tenuous assumption that the status quo would survive, at least into January, although I did work my typewriter keys somewhat gingerly.

The invitation for a day trip to Panmunjom had originally been extended to me in New York on behalf of Walter Leu, the director general of the Swiss National Tourist Office in Zurich. The co-host would be Major General Peter M. Niederberger Commission. (The Swiss and the Swedes serve as the official representatives—largely ceremonial—of the United Nations Command; the Czechs and the Poles do so for the Communists; the real power resides on the one side with the U.S. and South Korea; with the North Koreans and the Chinese on the other. General Niederberger, by the way, is the only active general in the Swiss army, since that country has traditionally employed no one of that rank in peace time. A civilized touch, which you can indulge as a historically neutral nation.

Our bus left the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul at nine in the morning on a mild, sunny late-September Thursday. We lumbered through heavy Seoul traffic for nearly an hour before breaking out into the countryside. Walter Leu, who’d been here in 1963 as a young Swiss lieutenant, talked of his amazement at the changes, at the growth. I got the message that the Koreans had certainly taken advantage of the last several decades to build a modern, thriving society.

The DMZ lies in rural country, green, quiet, some three miles deep, with fertile fields still framed for rice and ginseng by local South Korean families.

The U.S. presence is limited to some 350 servicemen, whose tour of duty averages one year. These are picture-book soldiers, "who can’t make a mistake, who can’t be intimidated, who’ve got to be sharp and intelligent," we were told by the commanding officer. (And they seem to salute anything that moves.) We got a brisk briefing from a Pfc. at Camp "Kitty Hawk"—don’t make any unfriendly gestures. We also heard a brief history of the conflict, the armistice and subsequent violations by the North, particularly the axe-murder incident of August 1976, when two American officers with a tree-trimming party were killed by North Korean guards. (We were later driven past the site of the melee.)

We got within a few yards of the North Koreans in their formal green uniforms on the street that fronts Freedom House, an attractive building that seemed out of place in the grim setting. I can only classify this South Korean structure as Pagoda/Victorian. While we were in the area, the North also hosted a group of visitors across the way: East Europeans or Russians in civvies, like us. Only they all wore suits and ties. We were generally casual (see INTELLIGENCER, this issue).

A few minutes later we would see the North Korean Propaganda Village as out side calls it, build like a Hollywood set: just a façade and no tenants. But they have a taller flagpole. The military demarcation line that separates the Koreans runs right through a conference table in the main meeting room, which is a "small, barracks like concrete building…." A booklet we received describes the meetings here as follows: "The atmosphere in the conference is invariably dismal: there are no handshakes or words of greeting, and the proceeding usually consist of an exchange of bitter words and hostile expressions." To add to the Alice in Wonderland atmosphere, we enjoyed an incredible lunch at the Swiss Camp, where the same chef has performed for the last twenty-five years for seven appreciative residents. During this meal (which I won’t describe for fear of igniting an international incident), I learned that nine buses would visit the DMZ that day; there are normally an average of seven. An estimated 50,000 tourists a year make the trek from Seoul to Panmunjom. Cost of the tour minus lunch is about $17, and runs four to five hours.

Should your travel plans, business or pleasure, bring you to Korea, I recommend a trip to the DMZ. It provides a dose of sobriety. And don’t forget to carry your passport.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.