Korea veterans return to the front line

DEPARTING VETERANS: Some of the 30 Korea War veterans at Auckland Airport before leaving for the 60th anniversary of the truce.
DEPARTING VETERANS: Some of the 30 Korea War veterans at Auckland Airport before leaving for the 60th anniversary of the truce.

Kiwi Korean War veterans are visiting the demilitarised zone on the first day of a trip back to mark 60 years since a ceasefire brought peace to the peninsula.

The men, who are part of a delegation travelling with Veterans' Affairs Minister Michael Woodhouse, will today visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which separates South Korea from the communist North.

Running through the 38th parallel, the zone has divided the two Koreas since the end of World War II. The Korean War was sparked when North Korean troops crossed into the South in 1950, taking control of Seoul, which was later recaptured by United Nations forces. Three years later a ceasefire was signed, with the uneasy situation still enduring.

Mr Woodhouse visited the DMZ in 2010 and said he hoped the veterans could be taken beyond the border of the zone, which is several kilometres wide.

Beyond here, troops from either side take part in seemingly hostile but highly scripted monitoring of each other, on either side of a building where the ceasefire was signed.

"It's a really, really sad example of the old Cold War mentality that we had up until the 1980s," Mr Woodhouse said.

How far into the DMZ the Kiwi veterans are taken may depend on security issues. Earlier this year the Korean Peninsula experienced the so-called "Spring Crisis" when the North Koreans issued warnings of a possible attack.

"I think the risk is low that anything would actually happen, but my guess would be that we'll see some statements coming out of [North Korean] President Kim [Jong Un]," Mr Woodhouse said.

"I would be surprised if some posturing didn't go on, a bit of sabre rattling."

Previous trips to the DMZ by Kiwi veterans have not been without antics. During the campaign for the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election, Wi Rangi Whaitiri, father of new Labour MP Meka Whaitiri, confided that on the 40th anniversary of the ceasefire, he was warned he may be shot by the North Koreans if he didn't stop giving them the fingers.

This week's delegation of 30 was reduced by one when a veteran reported respiratory problems and failed to convince a doctor he was healthy enough to travel from Whenuapai Airbase on Tuesday.

One of those on the plane said the group were upset by the departure of their comrade, who was himself in tears.

Mr Woodhouse said that although he was sure the man would have insisted on being allowed to risk the trip, they could not in good conscience take the chance.

It was likely to be the last time such a delegation would be taken to Korea because of their age, he said.

Fairfax Media