‘Lord Commander’ of the DMZ Has Seen It All on the Korean Frontier

Lt. Cmdr. D.E. McShane was holding his plane ticket home to begin his retirement in 2019 when President ​Donald J. ​Trump announced that he would be flying to the border between the two Koreas to meet Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea.

Dan-o McShane, as the former U.S. Navy officer is known, had been stationed in the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, between North and South Korea for six years. Like the rest of the world, he learned of Mr. Trump’s plans to meet Mr. Kim in the DMZ on Twitter — only a day before the meeting was to take place.

Suddenly, the lieutenant commander was thrust into making frantic preparations, his retirement plans scuppered.

“That started a whole 24-hour communication event that would result in multiple messages passed overnight,” said Commander McShane, who was the American-led United Nations Command’s top military officer at the border in the village of Panmunjom at the time.

“I lay down on the couch for a minute and then at 4 a.m., North Korea would call because they’re working just as hard on their side because Kim Jong-un’s going to come down to them and that’s probably a bigger cult of personality than the Donald Trump cult of personality.”

The Korean War armistice was signed at Panmunjom in 1953, creating the DMZ as a buffer between the two Koreas. The U.N. Command and North Korea opened the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom as the sole point of contact between the two enemies.

Each side has since assigned a joint duty officer​ at Panmunjom to help enforce the cease-fire. On the U.N. side, an American Navy officer has typically served a year or two under the U.N. flag. Commander McShane served for a record eight years, from 2013 to 2021, becoming the longest-serving U.N. joint duty officer at Panmunjom in history.

During that time, he faced off with North Korean troops, prepped for the Trump-Kim summit, saw tensions ebb and flow with the political mood and witnessed some of the most ​hair-raising — and ​bizarre — moments ​at the DMZ, the world’s most heavily armed border.

His first night on the job, a land mine exploded nearby. The next night, two went off. Soon, he stopped registering them; the DMZ is strewn with two million land mines. Animals step on them all of the time. It was “a bit of a culture shock,” Commander McShane recalled.

Twice a day — at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. — he rang his North Korean counterpart on a peach-colored phone the U.N. Command operated to ensure that the hotline was open.​ The messages were usually mundane: “We’re trimming the grass over here. Don’t shoot us!” he said.

Some U.S. soldiers in Panmunjom liked to call themselves the “Merry Mad Monks of the DMZ” because serving in such an isolated, off-limits spot was like living in a monastery. They organized cookouts and teed off at “the world’s most dangerous golf course”: a one-hole, par 3 surrounded on three sides by land mines.

Unfamiliar with Navy abbreviations like LCDR, for lieutenant commander, Army soldiers stationed at the DMZ nicknamed Commander McShane “the Lord Commander,” a reference to the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

He remembered once spotting a white dog ambling around Panmunjom. He fed and played with it for two weeks until it trotted across the demarcation line​​, “like he’s done it 1,000 times.”

The dog went up the stairs of the gray Stalinist building on the North Korean side. A soldier opened the door and the dog walked right in, never to be seen again. “The joke was, of course, that he’s a spy,” Commander McShane said.

At Panmunjom, North Korean and U.S. officers occasionally meet in person, even talking baseball. The North Koreans loved Doritos and South Korean Choco Pies, Commander McShane said. The U.N. officers also brought Marlboro cigarettes and Johnnie Walker whiskey as gifts.

But things could also get ugly.

When inter-Korean relations soured in 2015 after two South Korean soldiers were maimed by North Korean booby traps, loudspeakers raged ​around Panmunjom ​with North Korean propaganda 20 hours a day — and with South Korean side blasting pop music.

Sitting in his office one afternoon in 2017, Commander McShane recalled, he heard bursts of gunfire. Outside, a North Korean soldier was running his way across the border through a hail of bullets before making it to the South, shot but alive. By then, the hotline was no longer working; the North Koreans had switched it off to protest U.N. sanctions imposed on the country after its third nuclear test in 2013.

After the soldier’s defection, Commander McShane and his ​young ​translator were ordered by his higher-ups to go outside with a bullhorn to deliver a message, standing near the borderline.

It was dark and raining. Earlier that day, ​he had heard ​a single gunshot from the North​, likely the sound of ​an officer killing himself, knowing his fate for failing to stop the defector, Commander McShane recalled.

Commander McShane used the bullhorn to​ invite the North to a joint investigation​ of the defection. ​Back in his office, ​he saw a ​North Korean ​flashlight blinking​ at him​, and he was ordered to go back outside and repeat the message. His translator hid behind a brick wall until she had to repeat the message in Korean.

“They never replied to that series of messages, but that was the only time I ever felt super unsafe giving a message,” the commander said.

The Navy kept extending Commander McShane’s tour because it had difficulty finding a qualified replacement. A joint duty officer at Panmunjom must be a lieutenant commander with a master’s degree in East Asian studies and rigorous Korean language training. On the day of the Trump-Kim summit, the Navy extended his tour for the fifth time.

“Unpack,” his boss texted that day. “​No selfies with the president​.”

North Korean officers showed up hours later with three crates packed with dozens of North Korean flags. Commander McShane had only three American flags at his disposal. The North Korean “guys are just furious with me,” he recalled. They wondered, “‘How can you not have all this American stuff up here?’”

“I’m like, dude, I am the American stuff up here,” he said. “Everything is U.N.”

A Marine Corps helicopter had to bring more American flags from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. He used coat hangers for a flag spreader.

Daniel Edward McShane III speaks with a slight Southern accent and calls himself “a little talky.” Born in Charlotte, N.C., in 1970, he joined the Navy in 1999, and flew over Afghanistan and Iraq before being selected for the Blue Angels, the Navy’s aerobatic flying team. He now teaches guitar to wounded American veterans at Camp Humphreys, south of Seoul, as part of a program sponsored by the American Red Cross and the Wounded Warrior Project.

He said his most awkward moment at the DMZ was when Mr. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, came to Panmunjom in 2018 to prepare for her brother’s summit with Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president at the time. During a meeting, Ms. Kim, who has served both as a charming emissary and as a foul-mouthed spokeswoman for her brother’s regime, sat next to the commander, laughing and even lightly touching his arm.

Soldiers at Panmunjom would later tease him, calling Ms. Kim his “girlfriend.”

Sadly, Commander McShane said, the inter-Korean détente he witnessed during his times at the DMZ was “too short.” Relations between the two Koreas are at their lowest point in years, with North Korea conducting a record number of missile tests in recent months.

Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon jointly planted the “peace and prosperity tree” in Panmunjom to mark their 2018 summit, but the pine started browning shortly after it was planted. Commander McShane’s top boss, U.S. Army Gen. Robert B. Abrams, told​ him: “Don’t let that tree die.” (He added that the general was “a little more forceful than that.”)

For a couple months, Commander McShane used a hose to water the tree himself. “In the DMZ, there are very few things you can point to as a visual kind of containment of hope,” he said. “I think it’s important to keep that thing going.”

The tree lived.

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