Reporter’s Notebook: Visiting the Korean DMZ with the VP

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PANMUNJOM, Korea (CNN) — When I interviewed then-candidate Mike Pence at the Reagan Library during the 2016 campaign he, and we, were told that he would not be taking a tour of the museum. However, once he got there, he wanted to see the museum dedicated to his political hero. So that’s what he did.

So it should have been no surprise that despite the fact that he, and we, were told that for security reasons, now-Vice President Mike Pence would be limited in his movements at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, when the time actually came, he would push those limits.

The vice president was supposed to stay inside the enclosed glass of what is known as the Freedom House, which is adjacent to the military demarcation zone (MDL) that technically separates the Korean Peninsula. But when he found himself getting briefed about the North Korean military with soldiers standing little more than 100 feet away, he wanted to go outside and really see if for himself.

That sent those of us in the media traveling with him, and more importantly, his security and the military personnel, scrambling.

It also sent the North Korean soldiers into motion. They had already sensed that a dignitary of some sort was about to come, because a South Korean military cordon was preparing to go outside, as is the protocol for a visiting VIP.

When the North Korean soldiers saw that it was the vice president of the United States, they whipped out strongest weapons allowed in the DMZ — cameras.

It is their protocol to snap pictures, lots of them, when dignitaries come to observe and get briefed.

What ensued was nothing short of bizarre. The US vice president, looking at the MDL and the North Korean building behind it, while North Korean soldiers took pictures of the vice president looking at them.

Still, Pence did obey orders not to go where other officials at calmer times generally go — a series of blue buildings known as conference row. Inside those buildings, one can actually cross the MDL and technically be in North Korea. Now, given all the saber-rattling and missile testing, that was a no-no, even for the limit-testing Pence.

He did, however, take in another traditional site for visiting dignitaries — a watchtower called Observation Ouellette. From there, one can easily see the rolling hills of North Korea and hear the notorious propaganda blaring from loudspeakers of the rogue regime.

Before coming, a former top military official who spent time at the DMZ told me this is a place that is always inches and seconds away from a grave miscalculation. That could not have been clearer.

And to think: it has been a place on edge since a truce suspended the Korean War in 1953 with no victor. The armistice was supposed to be temporary. Yet now, 64 years later, the “truce village” of Panmunjom is still one of the tensest places on the planet.