Drama Along the DMZ

Story by Donna Miles

THE recent standoff between the United States and North Korea underscores the tenuous relationship between the two countries, and the risks faced by soldiers serving on the last Cold War border.

The most recent incident began on Dec. 17, when Army aviators CWO 2 David Hilemon and CWO 2 Bobby Hall left Camp Page on a routine training mission, "Razorback 19," along the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. Their flight plan called for them to fly to a preset location known as Checkpoint 84, south of a self-imposed "no-fly zone" along the DMZ.

But due to a navigational error, the crew's OH-58A Kiowa aircraft strayed into the Kangwon Province of communist North Korea.

The North Koreans, however, insisted that the unarmed aircraft was spying and said they shot it down. Hilemon was killed and Hall held captive for 13 days.

The North Koreans turned over Hilemon's body to U.S. authorities five days after the shoot-down at the Panmunjom truce village. However, negotiations failed to secure Hall's immediate release. He was finally freed on Dec. 30, exhausted but uninjured.

Ironically, the pilots' mission was to familiarize themselves with the no-fly line created to prevent incidents exactly like the one that occurred, Pentagon officials said. Both soldiers had been in Korea just over a month, assigned to Company A, 4th Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment. Hall, the pilot in command, was training Hilemon, an AH-64 Apache pilot.

But neither pilot had much experience flying over the rugged terrain along the DMZ.

From the air, the DMZ -- a heavily fortified buffer zone established after the Korean War -- is difficult to distinguish.

Thirty minutes after Hilemon and Hall took off, South Korean border guards noticed a helicopter flying north toward the no-fly zone of the DMZ. Forty-one minutes after liftoff, the crew, in their last radio message, reported that they had reached Checkpoint 84; in fact, they were about four miles inside North Korean airspace.

As government officials were negotiating with North Korea for Hall's release, Hilemon was buried with military honors in Gig Harbor, Wash. An honor guard from nearby Fort Lewis, Wash., fired three rifle volleys, and buglers played "Taps" as pallbearers from Fort Campbell, Ky., -- Hilemon's last duty station before reporting to Korea -- carried his body to its final resting place.

Meanwhile, Gen. Gary Luck, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, temporarily suspended border-area operations for the pilots' battalion and ordered refresher training for pilots. In addition, the battalion commander's approval is now required for all DMZ-area helicopter flights.

The Pentagon is also reviewing training and standards for border-area flights and navigational equipment requirements for all Army helicopters. The aircraft has no advanced navigational systems, leaving pilots to find their way over snowy mountains by map and compass.

Pentagon officials also are reviewing warning procedures for ground troops. South Korean posts that observed the aircraft flying off course had no radios to contact it, and the aircraft was moving too fast for them to use their only warning system -- flares.

The tragic incident is the not the first of its kind along the DMZ. Along that 150-mile-long stretch, some 1.1 million North Korean troops face off against more than 650,000 South Korean and about 36,000 U.S. troops. Two-thirds of North Korea's troops are reported to be within 60 miles of the DMZ.

In July 1977, a U.S. Army CH-47 helicopter was shot down and three people killed when it flew into North Korea. And in 1969, a U.S. Navy RC-121 reconnaissance plane was shot down off North Korea's east coast, killing 31 crew members.

Frequent clashes along the border have taken more than 50 American and 1,000 South Korean lives since the armistice ending the war.

In 1968 alone, 17 U.S. and 145 South Korean military personnel were killed and 294 were injured in 181 incidents. That was the same year the North Koreans seized a U.S. naval vessel, the USS Pueblo, with 83 sailors aboard, as it sailed in international waters off North Korea's east coast. The Pueblo crew was held captive for 11 months.

In August 1976, North Korean soldiers axed to death two U.S. officers pruning an overgrown tree in Panmunjom. And in one of the most recent incidents, in May 1992, three North Korean soldiers were killed and two South Korean soldiers were wounded after a group of North Kor-eans entered the southern part of the DMZ.

Since then, however, relations between the two countries had eased. In October 1994 the United States and North Korea signed a $4 billion agreement intended to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.

At press time, the Clinton administration had allocated $4.7 million from a Defense Department emergency fund to pay for the first shipment of oil to North Korea. The oil shipment, part of the nuclear agreement, will meet North Korea's energy needs while South Korean and Japan finance the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors.

[See related story about duty "Farthest Forward" on page 34.]

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