The Imjin River rushed, gray and churning, toward the Yellow Sea. A South Korean soldier used his flashlight to check our emergency dispatch, then shouted back to his comrade, who in turn barked guttural phrases into a field radio.
“What’s the hangup?” Ernie asked.
“They’re worried about sabotage,” I said. “All along the DMZ.”
“Us?” Ernie asked. “Our motives are pure.”
“Maybe they think we’re Russian spies,” I said.
Ernie crossed his arms. “Tell them I don’t even like vodka. Makes me puke.”
“Which designates it as unique amongst alcoholic beverages.”
A convoy of M48 Patton tanks rumbled up behind us, adding a layer of urgency to the guards’ discussion. Finally, the soldier on the radio walked toward us and waved his arm.
“You go,” he said, motioning toward the bridge.
“About time,” Ernie grumbled. He shoved the jeep in gear and we rolled forward. Freedom Bridge is narrow, only wide enough for one vehicle at a time, and the guards on either end of the bridge coordinate via field radio to control the flow of traffic. Armed soldiers in parkas, M16 rifles slung over their shoulders, paced the edge of the deck, studying us warily. In the muddy water below, basketball-sized chunks of ice swirled in the rapid current, smashing randomly into massive cement abutments.
In the past, wooden boxes filled with explosives had been launched into the river from north of the Demilitarized Zone by our Communist brethren upriver. Sometimes the explosives floated harmlessly toward the Yellow Sea. Other times they hit something—or someone—and exploded, serving as a sort of North Korean forget-me-not.
My name is George Sueno. My partner, Ernie Bascom, and I are agents for the United States Army Criminal Investigation Division in Seoul, Republic of Korea. We’d been roused out of our bunks at oh-dark-thirty by none other than the headquarters command Staff Duty Officer. He said one word: “Murder.”
When I stood up, fully alert, he continued, “At the JSA. Get your butts movin’.”
The JSA, or Joint Security Area, was also known as the truce village of Panmunjom. It was where Communist representatives of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as North Korea, met with the American-allied representatives of the Republic of Korea (ROK), or South Korea. The purpose of the meetings was to make sure that war didn’t break out again on the Korean Peninsula, as it had some twenty years ago. And that another two million people weren’t slaughtered as a result.
When we reached the northern end of Freedom Bridge, the guards waved us on. I turned back and watched the first M48 tank in the convoy roll slowly onto the massive metal and cement edifice. On our right, we passed the US Army’s Camp Greaves and then followed the two-lane road north through uncultivated land. It was only here, near the DMZ, that nature thrived unmolested. In the rest of South Korea, every square inch of arable land was ruthlessly cultivated, but here, near the most heavily armed border in the world, wildlife flourished. On lonely night patrols, GIs liked to kid one another that the nearly extinct Siberian tiger had made a comeback in the area. No one seriously thought it was possible. Even with their sensitive paws, the giant cats would never have been able to negotiate the acres of minefields that lurked beneath the soil on either side of the line.
I warmed my hands in front of the jeep’s small heater. It valiantly pumped out a steady flow of hot air that dissipated quickly in the canvas-covered cab. Along the side of the road, splotches of snow and ice clung to ridges of frozen mud churned up by tracked vehicles during endless maneuvers.
A mile farther on, stanchions with signage on either side of the road warned us in English, Korean, and Chinese:
YOU ARE ABOUT TO ENTER THE JOINT SECURITY AREA.
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
With both hands gripping the top of the steering wheel, Ernie hunched forward as if expecting to fall off a cliff. “Feels like the end of the world,” he said.
And then, by the light of a naked bulb in a wooden guard shack, we saw them. North Korean guards, doing what they did best: glare viciously at imperialist running dogs.
“Assholes,” Ernie growled.
The North Koreans were outfitted in fur-lined caps, brown tunics and brown trousers, black leather belts, holstered pistols, and faces that seemed hardened into stone. One of the guards studied us through binoculars, but they didn’t try to stop us.
About fifty yards later, we spotted the two-story cement block building called Freedom House and beyond that the rectangular, single-story JSA conference rooms, each its own blue building. The Joint Security Area was a plot of land some 800 meters in diameter. It was accessible to designated allied and Communist soldiers under a supposed flag of truce. An American soldier used the beam of his flashlight to guide us
into a parking space.
We were climbing out of the jeep when he said, “Are you CID?”
We answered in the affirmative.
“We’ve been waiting for you. I’m Lieutenant Colonel Brunmeyer, Battalion Commander.”
He was tall and lanky and had the blue and white JSA patch sewn onto the left shoulder of his fatigues. He was also dressed for combat, with a camouflaged steel helmet secured by a leather strap that hugged his chin. Unconsciously, his right hand sat atop the .45 automatic strapped to his web belt.
He turned and motioned for us to follow. “He’s over here.”
As we walked, he whistled to a group of about a dozen soldiers standing on the edge of the parking area. They hoisted M16 rifles, spread out, and arrayed themselves behind us in assault formation.
Lieutenant Brunmeyer spoke as we walked. “You are to show no hesitation. When we reach the body, I want you to do your jobs as if you’re alone and there’s no one watching you. Any sign of weakness and the North Koreans will pounce. Be efficient, be purposeful, and be bold. Any questions?”
“Yeah,” Ernie said. “What do you mean, ‘the North Koreans will pounce’?”
“I mean they’ve been watching the body since it was discovered, just prior to zero four hundred. So have we. Right now, it’s what you might call a standoff. They won’t touch the body because we have guns pointed at them, and we won’t touch it because they have guns pointed at us.”
“And you want us to walk into the middle of that?” Ernie asked.
Colonel Brunmeyer turned and studied him. “That’s your job, isn’t it?”
Before Ernie could respond, I said, “Who’s the victim?”
“One of our KATUSAs,” Brunmeyer replied. Korean Augmentation to the US Army. “From Alpha Company. About half the men of the Joint Security Battalion are Americans, the other half KATUSAs. His name is Corporal Noh Jong-bei.”
“Noh Jong-bei,” I repeated, writing it down in my notebook.
“The GIs call him Johnny No-Go.”
“No-go,” Ernie said. “As in, when you don’t pass a training requirement?”
Some years ago, the US Army had adopted a “go” and “no-go” standard for military training. You were either competent in a skill—say, firing an M16 rifle or jumping out of an airplane—or you failed; that is, received a “no-go.” If you were given a “no-go,” you’d be retrained until you were competent enough to earn a “go.”
“Yes,” Colonel Brunmeyer answered. “But Corporal Noh wasn’t a no-go. Nicknames are just the men’s way of needling one another. Noh was an excellent troop.”
“So what happened?” Ernie asked. “How was he killed?”
“We’re not sure. He was out here alone, we think. Late.”
“Was he on duty?” I asked.
“No. At night, we only man the observation posts.” The towers around the perimeter of the JSA.
“So what was he doing?”
Brunmeyer shrugged. “No one knows.”
We approached the long rectangular buildings where North Korea and South Korea actually meet. Ice crunched beneath our feet.
Four JSA guards stood at the southern edge of two parallel buildings. All wore black helmet liners with the letters “MP” painted in white on the front.
Colonel Brunmeyer spoke to the ranking man. “Any movement?”
“No, sir. They haven’t tried to approach the body.”
Brunmeyer frowned. “What the hell’s wrong with them?”
“I don’t know, sir. Usually they’d be all over something like this. Remember when that South Korean reporter argued with one of the guards and the North Koreans took him into custody?”
“Yeah, and we played hell getting him back.” Brunmeyer placed both hands on his hips, exhaled slowly, and whispered, as if to himself: “But for some damn reason, they’re staying away this time.”
“Maybe it’s superstition,” the guard offered. “They could be afraid of the dead.”
Brunmeyer shook his head resolutely. “It’s not that.”
It wasn’t my place to say so, but I thought the North Koreans might be avoiding the victim because they didn’t want to be blamed for his death. Whether they’d actually committed the murder or not, they knew that being charged with such a flagrant violation of the armistice could result in war.
The guards who patrolled the Joint Security Area were armed only with pistols, per the official armistice agreement. The infantry squad that lurked in the shadows behind us,
however, was armed with M16 military assault rifles. A hell of a lot more firepower. Exactly what Colonel Brunmeyer had in mind, I wasn’t sure. He turned to his men and raised his voice so all could hear.
“These are the CID investigators from Seoul. We’re going to give them cover while they inspect the body. Nobody fires except on my command. Is that understood?”
A few mumbles were heard from the tense men.
Lieutenant Colonel Brunmeyer stepped toward us. “I’ll walk out first. Junior Lieutenant Kwon, the Night Watch Officer over there on the North Korean side, knows me. Do your jobs without hesitation. The North Koreans respect one thing and one thing only, and that’s complete fearlessness. This Joint Security Area is open to all of us, on both sides of the MDL.” The Military Demarcation Line. “But during times of tension, we have a tendency to return to our own lines of scrimmage. Remember, the JSA is truce territory. We can cross the MDL if necessary.” He pointed into the distance.
“But about fifty yards north of here is the Bridge of No Return. Don’t go anywhere near there, because if you step onto that bridge, you’re officially in North Korea, and heaven help you then.” He glanced at each of us in turn. “You ready?”
“Wait a minute,” Ernie said. “You want us to walk out to the middle of that no-man’s-land and examine a crime scene like we’re in the middle of a park on a summer’s day?”
Brunmeyer nodded. “That’s exactly what I want.”
“And if we’re shot?”
“That’s our department.” He paused for a moment. And then he said, “Your death would be avenged.”
Ernie twisted his head to one side like a man who’d just been sucker-punched. For once, he wasn’t sure what to say.
“When was the last time,” I asked, “that you had a shooting incident here at the JSA?”
Colonel Brunmeyer thought about it. “There’ve been plenty along the DMZ. Dozens every year. But here at the JSA, near the conference rooms? None. Fistfights, yeah, and clubbings and stabbings, a few people hurt seriously—even disabled—but no one’s been killed by gunfire. Not yet. Not since the truce was signed more than twenty years ago.”
I turned to Ernie and raised an eyebrow, asking without words, “What do you think?”
Ernie turned toward the JSA guards standing in the snow and glanced at the assault squad hovering about ten yards behind. Slowly, he twisted his head to look back at the North Koreans. Then he looked at me and grinned.
“About time we earned our pay.” He took a step toward the JSA guards and said, “All right, you guys, stay the hell alert. Our butts are on the line here.”
Brunmeyer asked, “Ready now?”
“Roger Wilco,” Ernie replied.
I hadn’t said anything. My stomach convulsed, and if there’d been food in it I probably would’ve upchucked. I thought of the people I owed something to. My mother had died when I was very young, and shortly thereafter my father had disappeared into the endless mystery that is Mexico. My four-year-old son, Il-yong, was in hiding with his mother.
Any move I made to be a part of his life would expose them both to danger, even death, at the hands of the Park Chunghee regime. So despite the dull ache that never left my heart, I stayed resolutely away. The woman I’d been seeing most recently, Doctor Leah Prevault, had been transferred—as part of a concerted effort by the army to keep us apart—from the 121st Evacuation Hospital in Seoul to Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. Despite our attempts to maintain intimacy, it was becoming increasingly clear that breathing life into a long-distance romance might be impossible.
So at that moment, the only person I owed anything to was myself.
The armed GIs were waiting. When Colonel Brunmeyer looked at me, I nodded. “Ready, sir,” I told him.
“Okay,” he replied. “Let’s go.”