By Lisa Ferdinando
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
PANMUNJOM, Korea, March 9, 2015 – The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visited Korea's demilitarized zone yesterday, where soldiers from North Korea and South Korea have stared each other down for more than six decades after an armistice ended hostilities of the Korean War.
Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. said the tour is a powerful reminder of just why American service men and women give so much to defend the freedom of the nation.
Winnefeld is leading a USO delegation of celebrities who are circumnavigating the globe in just over a week to bring cheer to deployed troops. After visiting in Europe and making their way through Bahrain, Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, South Korea was their last foreign call before heading for their final show in Hawaii.
He said he took the celebrities to the DMZ so they could gain a deeper understanding of the freedoms that the men and women of the U.S. armed forces and allied nations are fighting to defend -- and for the service and sacrifice of those who fought and died defending freedom in the Korean War.
The role of celebrities as goodwill ambassadors also is to greet the troops who are deployed so far from home, the admiral said.
Earlier in the day, at Osan Air Base, South Korea, Air Force Col. Brook Leonard, the 51st Fighter Wing commander, succinctly described the U.S. role in the region:
"Our grandparents fought and died together for freedom, and we continue to guard that freedom," he said.
North Korea Watches Delegation
Army Col. James Minnich, the secretary of the United Nations Command, Military Armistice Commission, briefed Winnefeld and the group and took them through the fortified DMZ area.
UNCMAC supervises the armistice agreement, which was signed in 1953 and created the DMZ that serves as a buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea.
"It is in U.S. best interests that things continue to progress over here, Minnich said. “Our presence here and our alliance ensure that stability."
When Winnefeld and the celebrities reached the inside portion of the Joint Security Area conference row, North Korean soldiers rushed to the windows on the North Korean side and furiously snapped photos of occupants inside.
The North Koreans will try to identify who was visiting the area, Minnich explained.
Winnefeld's guests included Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, Colts tight end Dwayne Allen, Pittsburgh Steelers guard David DeCastro, actor Dennis Haysbert, Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev, “American Idol” season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, and former “American Idol” contestants Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo, now a married couple.
The celebrities had lunch with U.S. and South Korean soldiers at the Joint Security Area to boost morale and bring a slice of home to the American troops.
The service and sacrifice of those who fought in the Korean War is a reminder of the price of freedom, Winnefeld said, proudly noting how his father was among those who fought in the conflict.
"My father served in the Navy in the Korean War and actually directed naval gunfire and his boat was hit, so he's seen this conflict right up front," Winnefeld said.
Luck's grandfather was a Marine Corps engineer in the Korean War.
"He used to tell stories about how he was deployed a couple months before the cease-fire started," he said.
The NFL star said he grew up with stories from his grandfather about how he helped to build the first 15 miles of the DMZ, and saw prisoner exchanges and the minefields being set up.
In advance of this trip, Luck said, he and his grandfather spoke multiple times and went over maps and photographs of the area.
"It's a bit surreal to be here," he said, noting that he looks forward to discussing the visit with his grandfather.
"I need to have a very extensive, lengthy, detailed report ready for him, … or else," Luck said with a chuckle.
Service Members Stand Ready
A little more than 28,000 U.S. service members are in South Korea. About 92 percent of those service members are on a one-year tour without their families, Leonard said.
"There is sacrifice to do that, but that sacrifice over the last 60-plus years since the armistice was signed has resulted in incredible prosperity in South Korea," he said.
The United States and its South Korean partners have done "an amazing amount of nation building," Leonard said.
The hope over time, he added, is that North Korea and South Korea will come together as one state or in other ways.
"It could be two separate states, but no longer at 'pause' but actually interacting," he said. "Who knows how that will play out? But it is our hope that it plays out in a very peaceful way."
Visitors to the DMZ will see the stark contrast between the sides, he said. A photograph from space shows South Korea vibrant and lit up at night, while North Korea is dark -- in a literal and figurative sense, Leonard said.
"It's pretty incredible to see how literally the relationship, the war, basically got put on pause, and so we say we are at 'pause' and not at peace," he said.
"We are here for basically the specific reason is to guard the freedom of 51 million people," he added. "We prioritize readiness to make sure we are ready to fight tonight."
The U.S. armed forces have been serving in Korea since the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. The armistice was signed July 27, 1953.
"They signed an armistice, and we continue to reinforce that armistice every day -- every day -- by making sure that we're as ready as possible as we can be," Leonard said.