ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Weston Ochse is a former intelligence officer and special operations soldier who has engaged enemy combatants, terrorists, narco smugglers, and human traffickers. His personal war stories include performing humanitarian operations over Bangladesh, being deployed to Afghanistan, and a near miss being cannibalized in Papua New Guinea. His fiction and non-fiction has been praised by USA Today, The Atlantic, The New York Post, The Financial Times of London, and Publishers Weekly. The American Library Association labeled him one of the Major Horror Authors of the 21st Century. His work has also won the Bram Stoker Award, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and won multiple New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. A writer of more than 26 books in multiple genres, his military supernatural series SEAL Team 666 has been optioned to be a movie starring Dwayne Johnson. His military sci fi series, which starts with Grunt Life, has been praised for its PTSD-positive depiction of soldiers at peace and at war. Weston likes to be called a chaotic good paladin and challenges anyone to disagree. After all, no one can really stand a goody two-shoes lawful good character. They can be so annoying. It's so much more fun to be chaotic, even when you're striving to save the world. You can argue with him about this and other things online at Living Dangerously or on Facebook at Badasswriter. All content of this blog is copywrited by Weston Ochse.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Palpable - The Fear of North Korea

My first trip to the Republic of Korea (South Korea) took place in 1985 when a then young army private got his first posting. I was assigned to a special weapons unit in Chun Chon. I thought being in Korea was going to be all about club girls and parties. Then I was told within five minutes of arriving that we were within seven minutes of missile attack from North Korea. It was then that I knew this was serious business.

I took advantage of my year there. I spent many a night atop one of the many mountains near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) looking out across the range to North Korea and wondering what they were all about. Sometimes we'd get some soju and get wasted, tossing the bottles down the mountain and trying to blow up the landmines that had been placed there to protect us. 

Then I went to the Joint Security Area (JSA) near the DMZ. I traveled the Bridge of No Return. Once crossed, you know that if anything happens no one will save you. I was able to stand face-to-face with a North Korean soldier, standing at attention right across a line painted on the ground. He stared at me. I stared at him. I didn't hate him. But I feared him. He wanted to kill me. He wanted me dead. All I wanted was to stay alive. There's a difference.

I learned about the North Korean Axe Murders. Back in Aug 1976, less than ten years from when I was there, some Americans went to cut down a tree in the DMZ that was blocking a critical view. North Korean soldiers came at them and killed them with axes. Thus began Operation Paul Bunyan. You can read about it here and here.

I've spoken with friends of mine who'd been in Germany when there was a wall seperating the country into a free West Germany and a soviet East Germany. Those who had also been to Korea said that the pervasive feeling of fear in Korea was far worse than anything they'd felt in Germany. No one really thought the Soviet Union would attack, but one could never tell with North Korea. It's a common belief on the ground that if North Korea ever felt like it was backed so far into a corner that it couldn't get out that they'd just say 'Fuck it' and fire everything they had. We're talking over 10,000 artillery pieces, each capable of reaching Seoul. Imagine living in New York City and having 10,000 high explosive rounds hitting Manhattan. Yeah. That's the sort of devastation I'm talking about. And that's just the first volley. What if they fire again. And again. I'm not even talking about any nuclear options.

That's why the feeling of fear is palpable. You become accustomed to it, but it never goes away. Walking the streets of Korea is much like walking in Afghanistan. You never know when you're going to get hit. I've consistently tried to put this feeling into my military fiction novels. From SEAL Team 666 to the Grunt Life books, I've tried to imbue it with fear. But it's hard to do. You almost have to be there.

Many years later, back to participate in a military exercise, I was afforded the opportunity to see one of North Korea's tunnels. It seemed as if NK was always digging tunnels under the DMZ in the event they wanted to surprise attack the south. I'm not talking small tunnels either. There are those, but there are also tunnels tall and wide enough that three tanks side-by-side could come through. The tunnel I went to wasn't one of those. It was built by North Korean commandos to allow them to infil and exfil the Republic of Korea (ROK) as they came and went, killing and kidnapping. The tunnel was ominously close to the DMZ. The tunnel was still in use.

It took well over five hundred steps to reach the tunnel, down a dark slash in the earth. Myself and my companion wore headlamps and as we descended it became colder. When the stairs finally stopped, we leveled off into a tunnel that had a light powered by a battery that illuminated a sad nimbus of area, showing me that the tunnel was about ten feet wide and seven feet high. Several batteries sat next to the light. Other than ourselves, there were two living beings in the menacing space. One was a young ROK soldier on a flimsy stool, sitting behind a .50 caliber machine gun on a tripod, the barrel pointing north. The other living being was a yellow bird in a cage that sat on the ground right at the edge of the light.

I turned to my left towards the Republic of Korea. We weren't at the end of the tunnel. We were
somewhere in the middle. I turned to my right and tried to see into the darkness of North Korea. I couldn't help but imagine what would happen if NK commandos decided they wanted to attack us. The fear I'd felt years before on the DMZ came back to me in a sickening wave. Claustrophobia began to set in and I hunched my shoulders. It was then I realized that the young ROK soldier hadn't addressed us or said a word, so intent was his gaze on the darkness of the north.

"What's the bird for?" I asked my partner.

"It's a canary. If the north decides they want to get rid of the guard, they'll gas the tunnel. The canary will die first."

"And that tells the soldier to escape right?"

My partner looked at me then. He'd been stationed in Korea for years. He knew the truth of it. "No. That tells him to fire and he'll keep firing until the gas gets him."

I stared at the young soldier.

He remained steadfast, unblinking, peering into the dark, awaiting his own demise.

It was halfway back up when we took a moment to breath that I asked, "It doesn't ever happen like that, does it?"

Again I got the look. "It happens more often than it should," he said.

Then I remembered the bird. It had been as silent and as intent as the ROK soldier.


  1. Wow, she said sadly. I'm glad you got out of there safely.

  2. Linda, yes. It's a hell of a place. I hope the country can peacefully reunify and avoid a war.