Everyone who visits Panmunjom, the small village which hosts the Joint Security Area (JSA), talks about the strange atmosphere at the only place where soldiers from North and South Korea face each other.
Since 1953, both countries have chosen their fittest and tallest troops to guard the line which symbolizes the divide of the peninsula and the ongoing stalemate between the DPRK and the ROK.
In many ways, it’s quite boring. Given the magnitude of its significance, save for the occasional negotiation and the flocks of tourists on both sides, not much goes on at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom.
At least for the most part: Occasionally this strange stalemate is interrupted. In 1976, for example, two American soldiers were killed in the JSA by North Koreans with axes in a dispute over a tree, in what’s become known as the “axe murder incident.” This then prompted Operation Paul Bunyan, in which an overwhelming U.S. military force arrived to not just trim the tree, but cut it down completely in defiance of North Korean wishes.
Yet one of the oddest moments in the history of the DMZ took place in 1984, when Vasily Yakovlevich Matuzok made a dash for freedom across the line, sparking a gunfight between South Korean and North Korean soldiers – causing the highest loss of life in the JSA’s history.
The Cold War was heating up. After a decade or so of détente, Ronald Reagan was determined to defeat the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union with an aggressive international anti-communist push and massive defense spending, and the USSR found itself increasingly bogged down in its occupation of Afghanistan, troubled economy and political strife.
Relations between the two Koreas weren’t great either. Only a year before, North Korean agents had set off bombs in Rangoon, Burma, in a failed attempt to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan.
Not a great time for a gunfight at the DMZ.
‘These people were the crème de la crème of the Soviet society, or at least saw themselves as such’
Professor Andrei Lankov of Seoul’s Kookmin University was there that day. An exchange student at the time at Kim Il Sung University, he was visiting with eight fellow students, as well as a group from the Moscow Institute of International Relations, of which Matuzok was a part.
“(That was) where future diplomats, foreign trade specialists and intelligence officers were trained,” he said. “These people were the crème de la crème of the Soviet society, or at least saw themselves as such, and didn’t not fraternize with us frequently.”
Lankov hadn’t seen much of Matuzok before then. The would-be diplomats were housed at the Russian embassy, away from the dorm at Kim Il Sung University which housed the foreign students. Classes were separate, too, so they didn’t get many chances to strike up conversation.
“I also remember that during our brief encounters he came off as arrogant even by the MGIMO standards,” Lankov said. “Back then I was told that he came from an elite Soviet family, a military general or something like that, but I’m not sure if it’s really true.”
It was around 11:30 a.m. on November 23 when Matuzok made a run for it, part of a tour of foreigners visiting the JSA for the day. At the time there was no physical demarcation line between the two negotiation buildings, as there is now, and Matuzok asked a fellow student to take his picture.
“He was standing facing the North Korean ‘Panmungak’ center,” said Lankov. “Somewhere between the buildings, virtually a stone’s throw from the demarcation line.”
It’s not clear who fired first, the North or the South
And then, out of nowhere, Vasily dashed across the border between the two Koreas. A KPA officer tried to stop him, and began chasing him. According to an excerpt from “The Quiet Victory,” a thesis by Manny Seck, the North Koreans immediately drew their weapons and began shooting, dashing to stop him from crossing further into South Korea. As soon as they crossed the line, the shooting began.
It’s not clear who fired first, the North or the South, but the American GIs opened fire, hitting one of the KPA soldiers in the foot, and the North Koreans gave up the chase to instead take on the U.S. Army. Chang Myung-gi, a temporary Korean addition to the group, was shot through the head and killed. Things escalated fast: the GIs broke out M16 rifles and returned fire (guns were apparently not allowed in the JSA), forcing the North Koreans to seek cover.
“By that time, something like a machine gun or grenade launcher was used by the Americans, even though such weapons were apparently banned from the area,” Lankov said. “North Korean armed forces were not innocent either, as almost as soon as the incident began, a whole squad, 5-7 people, arrived with automatic rifles just as illegal as the machine guns and grenade launchers.”
“Meanwhile myself and other students took refuge inside Panmungak, a nearby building on the North Korean side, where were waiting for further instructions.”
Lankov and his colleagues were rushed into a minivan and driven away. As the DMZ erupted in machine gun fire, Matuzok hid in some nearby bushes. Approached by the GIs, he stated his intention to defect, and rushed away from the battle. Encountering heavy resistance, the North Koreans raised their hands, collected their dead, and withdrew behind the demarcation line. In all, three KPA soldiers were killed and one South Korean in a fight that lasted just 30 minutes.
“I think there was no way just to think that I was doing something other than defecting,” Matuzok told the American officers who interviewed him at a military hospital in Seoul. “I think that they know just from the very beginning that I was defecting.”
‘He even risked provoking an armed confrontation in a highly tense part of the world’
He did it, he told the Americans in the interview, because it was his first-ever chance to flee to the West, countering North Korea’s claim that he had been forced to flee. Lankov is less sympathetic, arguing that the defection was needlessly risky and cost lives when there would have been better opportunities to defect.
“I believe he risked the lives of himself and others, some of which were indeed killed, for no reason,” he argues. “He even risked provoking an armed confrontation in a highly tense part of the world. He was smart and educated enough to understand (this).”
“Matuzok’s eventual job as a diplomat would assuredly give him innumerable opportunities to defect without the risks and bloodshed.”
Despite this, the incident appears to have had little effect on South Korean-North Korean relations, which were already fraught, and, of course, did not lead to war. Lankov, incidentally, said he was formally summoned two years later to the headquarters of the KGB in Leningrad to give official testimony about the incident.
“That was pretty much it,” he said. “I’m also aware that some Soviet embassy officials attended the funerals of North Korean soldiers killed in the incident. They said it was a rather cathartic experience, as they felt somewhat responsible for their deaths.”
No one’s sure what happened to Matuzok after this. Lankov recalls that he heard a rumor that he “died from a traffic accident in Canada” in 1990, and speculation online by a commenter alleging to have met him at military camp claims that he handed over state secrets before being jetted off to Rome to assume a new identity, while a Russian reporter in South Korea claims he now lives in San Francisco.
Wherever he is, his mad dash for freedom is still remembered, at least on one side of the border. On the 20th anniversary on the incident in 2004, a joint U.S.-South Korean memorial was held for their fallen comrade. But on the DPRK side, memories aren’t quite so fresh.
“To the best of my recollection they were trying their best to “not know” about this incident when I asked about it at the Victorious War Museum,” said Christian Peterson Clausen, a photographer. “Literally: ‘I have never heard this story, let’s move on …’”
It’s very possible that word of the incident hasn’t reached the North Korean tour guides who spend their days taking skeptical tourists through the DPRK side of the JSA. But it’s interesting to think what might happened these days if a visitor, convincing a friend to take their picture, tried to make a run for it.