DEMILITARIZED ZONE, South Korea - When Army Staff Sgt. Anthony Fischle got orders two years ago and learned that he was to be posted here, he assumed he'd be pulling patrols along the heavily fortified border separating North and South Korea.
But Fischle isn't guarding against infiltrators from the north, as U.S. troops once did in support of the South Korean military. Instead, he's helping thousands of workers, along with truckloads of raw materials, cross into North Korea each day.
The mission, under the auspices of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission, supports a sprawling industrial complex about six miles north of the DMZ that's unknown to many Americans.
The Kaesong Industrial Park opened in 2003, part of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy" promoting reconciliation between the two Koreas. So far, 117 South Korean companies have set up operations on the 2.2-square-kilometer complex -- with 123 more in the process of building additional factories as the complex balloons to 60 square kilometers, or more than 23 square miles.
These companies employ almost 43,000 North Korean workers who manufacture clothing, pots and pans, and small electronic components and process mushrooms, garlic and chestnuts for delivery to the south. Another 1,000 South Koreans work at the factories, mostly as supervisors.
The relationship benefits North and South Korea, explained Canadian Navy Lt. Cmdr. Hugh Son, the U.N. Command Military Armistice Commission's control officer for the western transportation corridor that leads to the factory complex.
It provides a cheap labor source for South Korean companies, which pay the North Korean workers, through their government, $57.99 a month in hard U.S. currency.
But the Kaesong complex has a far-larger significance, said Son, a South Korean native who emigrated to Canada with his family at age 4. It's captured in the engraving on a giant rock at the entranceway to the four-lane road leading to the complex: "This road leads to peace and prosperity."
"This truly is, I believe, the road that will lead to peace and prosperity for both sides," Son said. "What we are seeing here is the future."
The Kaesong complex stands as a symbol of promise that has managed to withstand political tensions. The factory wheels never stopped turning during North Korea's nuclear and missile tests, when it walked away from the six-party talks, or when it ratcheted up its rhetoric over the Key Resolve military exercise South Korea and the United States wrapped up last week.
As newspaper headlines blared division, operations at the Kaesong complex continued nearly unfettered, along with the steady flow of traffic that transits the DMZ each day to support it.
Son's four-man detachment, with Fischle as its noncommissioned-officer-in-charge, plays a big part in preventing political turmoil from spilling over into the more than four-mile-long sector leading to the Kaesong complex.
Acting on behalf of Army Gen. Walter "Skip" Sharp, commander of United Nations Command, U.S. Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea, the team monitors everything crossing through the DMZ. They monitor for compliance not just with the armistice agreement, but also with North-South agreements governing administration of the corridor and U.N. Security Council resolutions banning weapons, high-tech computers and luxury goods from being shipped into North Korea.
The South Korean unification and defense ministries and customs, immigration and quarantine offices process transit requests, register travelers and inspect vehicles. Son's team approves the manifests, giving the official green light for movements across the DMZ.
The mission keeps them busy. Since 2004, more than 1.4 million people and 700,000 vehicles have crossed the DMZ en route to the Kaesong complex.
Son and his team monitor about 20 scheduled crossings between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. each day. A fleet of about 100 Hyundai buses ferries workers to the complex every day except Sundays and North Korean holidays. Convoys of up to 200 vehicles carry equipment and raw supplies to the factories; they then return south loaded with manufactured goods.
Traffic is expected to increase during the summer, particularly if a tour company resumes taking sightseers through the DMZ's western corridor to explore historical sites in Kaesong. That's expected to begin at any time, Son said, as soon as the South Korean government officially approves the plan. Although U.S. citizens will be authorized to take the tours, U.S. military members won't, he noted.
As he talks about these and other plans involving Kaesong, Son recognizes the unique, once-unimaginable role he and his fellow servicemembers at the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission are playing in helping to maintain stability along the DMZ.
"I think of it as a football field, with two teams going at it," Son said. "Then, at the one-yard line, someone sets up a hot dog stand. That's how I see this whole area. You have this corridor, four kilometers by 250 meters, the most heavily mined border in the world right now. But just on the other side, we have these factories operating."
The detachment's job, Son said, is to ensure the action on the playing field doesn't escalate, and that the hot dog stand -- and beyond it -- can continue to operate without violence.
As he wraps up his tour here and prepares to re-enter civilian life, Fischle said he recognizes the big, long-term implications of the work he and his tiny detachment are conducting here.
"When you see something like this, it gives me hope that one day I will turn on CNN and hear that North and South Korea have come together," he said. "The prospect of that makes me feel warm inside."
This work, Command Supports Peace, Prosperity Along Korean DMZ, by Donna Miles, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.