Olympic glory in midst of Korean rancor

The Feb. 9-25 Winter Olympics in South Korea reach their mid-point today, and news that Jamie Anderson of South Lake Tahoe has won the gold medal for women’s slopestyle snowboarding is indeed exciting for many northwestern Nevadans and Californians.

In brutally cold and windy conditions, 27-year-old Anderson, who also captured gold in the same event at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has become the first female to win two first place medals in the sport. Coming in second and third place against Anderson were, respectively, Canada’s Laurie Biouin and Finland’s Enni Rukajarvi who took silver and bronze.

Slopestyle snowboarding, in a nutshell, involves the snowboarder dashing down steep mountain slopes that have been peppered with a wide variety of obstacles such as high jumps, railings, benches, tables and the like.

I’ve been glued to the TV set since the Olympics began, and have learned that Anderson is the fifth of eight children, all of whom have been home schooled. The daughter of a Lake Tahoe firefighter, she enjoys climbing, hiking and skiing in Northern California and Nevada, took up snowboarding at the age of nine, and at 15 became the youngest female medalist when she won a bronze medal for snowboarding at the 2004 Winter Olympics. Born and raised at South Lake Tahoe, she is 5-foot 3-inches, weighs 119 pounds, a devotee of yoga and an active member of Protect Winters, a non-profit, non-political international organization partially funded by outdoor sports clothing and equipment manufacturers to protect wintertime tourism economies from environmental destruction, climate change and global warming.

As I watched the first week of the Olympics, which turned political with the appearances of Vice President Mike Pence and Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean communist dictator Kim Jong Un (her initially-smiling countenance turned to scorn when the U.S. team marched past during the opening ceremonies), I recalled my week-long visit three-and-a-half years ago to South Korea which included a brief foray into North Korea.

Accompanied by my wife, Ludie, on this adventure in July 2014, we were driven about 35 miles from Seoul, the South Korean capital, to Panmunjom, a village that lies astride the South Korean-North Korean border, where the United Nations-brokered armistice ending the 1950-1953 Korean War was signed on July 27, 1953. Although an uneasy truce between the two Koreas has been in effect since the signing of the armistice, the two nations are still technically at war ... a war in which 37,667 Americans lost their lives, 103,284 were wounded and approximately 7,600 are still missing in action.

During our journey, we passed pillboxes, tank traps, towering observation posts and huge blocks of concrete on both sides of the razor wire-topped chainlink fence and the two-mile-wide heavily-mined demilitarized zone (DMZ) that runs along the 115-mile border separating North and South Korea.

Upon arriving at the Panmunjom truce village, we came upon a cluster of light-blue United Nations buildings on the South Korean side of the border and several nondescript gray Soviet-style military headquarters buildings that lie on the North Korean side.

Ushered into a large conference room in a blue-colored UN building that sat on the border of the two Koreas, we were told that this is where UN officials and representatives of North and South Korea hold periodic truce-related talks, as mandated by the 1953 armistice agreement.

In the corner of the room, half of which is in North Korea and half in South Korea, lay a long, rectangular wooden table surrounded by chairs. The south side of the table, which is in South Korean territory, was guarded by a South Korean soldier standing at attention and wearing wrap-around dark glasses. A North Korean soldier guarding the North Korean side of the table hastened outside when I tried to take his picture. I was permitted to take photos from the South Korean side and, in a moment of journalistic insanity, handed my camera to another visitor, grabbed my wife by the arm, walked her over to the North Korean side, and yelled to the startled fellow holding my camera (he was a Filipino army officer) “Take our photo NOW! We’re officially in North Korea and I want a photograph to prove it!”

Presto! He took the photo of the Henleys in North Korea. A U.S. Army officer attached to the UN waved his finger at me and said, “Get back here in South Korea at once! Do you see that door behind you? It lies in North Korea, and North Korean soldiers could storm through it and abduct you or both you and your wife.” But I decided to stay on the North Korean side of the room for a few more minutes, walking back and forth with Ludie and observing startled North Korean soldiers peering in the windows at these two crazy Americans.

After about 10 minutes, I said to Ludie “enough is enough” and we scurried back to the South Korean side of the table. We were given holy hell by the American officer, I can assure you. My story and photo of us in North Korea appeared in the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard a few weeks later.

The conference room and table are still there, and the enmity between South Korea and North Korea remains. The U.S., a strong ally of South Korea, maintains about 20,000 troops in South Korea. Nothing has changed. The North Koreans threaten South Korea and the United States with nuclear annihilation. War could come at any time.

David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.


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