PANMUNJOM, South Korea, November 2, 2015 — For two days in Seoul, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. participated in meetings to strengthen the U.S.-South Korean defense alliance.
At the end of the meetings, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff traveled 35 miles north to the Demilitarized Zone here between North and South Korea to see why this effort is so important, and to thank the American and South Korean soldiers who man “the front line of freedom.”
Dunford came face-to-face with North Korean soldiers during his visit to the Joint Security Area. As his party arrived at the South Korean Freedom House, North Korean soldiers came from their headquarters. The chairman and his party went to the line separating North and South Korea and the North Korean soldiers approached, taking pictures of the American leader.
A Silent Encounter
Dunford listened as Army Col. James Minnich, the secretary of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission, explained the workings of the Joint Security Area. All the while, North Korean soldiers stood about eight feet away, snapping more pictures.
Not a word was exchanged between the two sides. When Dunford went in to the JSA conference room, North Korean soldiers peered in through the windows.
Before moving to the Truce Village, Dunford visited with U.S. and South Korean soldiers who serve together as part of the Joint Security Area Battalion. The general thanked the soldiers for their service in the area.
Serving on the DMZ “is tough duty” that requires discipline and around-the-clock readiness, Dunford told the soldiers.
The expectation on the DMZ, he added, is that “if something happens you are going to respond in minutes — not next week, not next month — but in minutes. The expectation is that you’ll be ready.”
It is tense on the DMZ, where U.S. and South Korean soldiers always keep a close watch.
“They are game-on every day and that’s the expectation — that they can fight tonight and they can fight tonight and win,” Dunford said.
Coming to the DMZ also allows the general the opportunity to walk the ground and visualize it. “It reminds you of the challenge we have up here and the expectation of just being ready in case something happens,” he said.
Dunford said seeing the combined unit of U.S. and South Korean soldiers reminded him of how close the partnership between the two countries is. “There is probably not another organization out there with the level of integration we have up here along the DMZ in the security battalion,” he said.
The combined unit, he said, is a microcosm of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
Dunford visited the DMZ the day after Defense Secretary Ash Carter did the same. Their visits illustrate the importance the United States places on the alliance with South Korea and on Asia as a whole, the general said.
During his first month as chairman, Dunford said, he estimates that he spent 50 percent of his time on Asia-Pacific issues. “This is only my second visit outside the United States and it’s here in Korea, so I think that reflects the importance of the Pacific to the United States,” he said.