That time a Soviet citizen defected across the Korean DMZ
Just recently, a North Korean soldier made a mad dash under heavy fire to freedom on the south side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. His escape made headlines all over the world – but he isn’t the first person to defect successfully across the DMZ.
On the day after Thanksgiving 1984, a Soviet citizen on a tour of the DMZ suddenly abandoned his group and sprinted to freedom in South Korea.
Vasilii Matuzok long dreamed of fleeing the oppression of Communism. He even obtained a job in Pyongyang as a means of making his escape attempt.
But despite its name, the Demilitarized Zone is anything but. The four-kilometer wide area is heavily mined and guarded by armed soldiers from each side. A crossing there was as near suicidal during the Cold War as it is today.
However, at a small village named Panmunjom (the site of the Korean War Armistice signing), the North and South created a Joint Security Area. This area is heavily guarded but it contains no minefields or other the deterrents to crossing that can’t be said for the rest of the DMZ.
When Matuzok’s tour group was distracted, he made a break for it.
Immediately realizing what was happening, some 30 North Korean soldiers pursued him and fired wildly in the hopes of bringing him down before he could reach the other side.
This immediately created a significant incident. As the two sides were still technically at war – having never signed a peace agreement – the North Korean soldiers pursuing Matuzok instantaneously became an armed incursion. The UN guards quickly alerted the United Nations Quick Reaction Force at nearby Camp Kitty Hawk.
The United Nations had a Joint Security Force company comprised of Americans and Koreans stationed at Camp Kitty Hawk to respond to any incidents at the Joint Security Area and provide the guard detail.
As the incident developed into a full-on firefight between the North Korean soldiers and the UN’s JSA guards, Capt. Bert Mizusawa got the call at Camp Kitty Hawk. He told his men to load up while he got as much information as he could from the Tactical Operations Center.
As his group sped the quarter mile to the JSA, Mizusawa was unaware of the defection. His sole purpose was to restore the Armistice conditions. The North Korean soldiers, invaders at this point, had to be turned back, he said, “with no concern for proportionality… we were going to win no matter what.”
When Mizusawa and the QRF arrived with three infantry squads augmented with three machine gun teams, the UN guards at the JSA had the intruding North Koreans pinned down in an area known as the “Sunken Garden.” It had been only fifteen minutes since Matuzok defected.
Mizusawa sent one squad east to reinforce the men at Checkpoint 4, who were engaged against the North Koreans there while he personally led the other two squads on a flanking maneuver to the southwest. During their movement, the men came across Matuzok hiding in the bushes.
Captain Mizusawa immediately realized the urgency of the situation. If the North Koreans were able to kill or recapture Matuzok, they controlled the narrative of the day’s events.
After confirming Matuzok’s intention to defect, Mizusawa put him in the personal custody of the QRF Platoon Sergeant who raced him to safety at Camp Kitty Hawk.
With the defector now secured Mizasawa was in a tactically perfect situation. He had his enemy pinned down on low ground and was in position to move in from the flank. The Americans executed a textbook example of Battle Drill 1A. As the lead fire team bounded into the Sunken Garden under accurate suppressive fire, the North Koreans attempted to flee.
Caught in the open, they chose to surrender rather than be gunned down.
The elapsed time since the defection was approximately 20 minutes. It only took six minutes after the arrival of the QRF platoon to defeat the North Korean threat.
During the fighting, a South Korean KATUSA soldier was killed and an American soldier wounded when they drew heavy fire from the North Koreans protecting the escape of Matuzok.
The North Koreans lost three killed, five wounded, and eight captured during the incident.
One of the dead was thought to be the leader of the infamous Axe Murder incident in 1976.
However, for the North Korean soldiers, failure in this situation would be costly. It is believed that the leader of the North Korean troops and his subordinate were summarily executed immediately after the incident.
Despite being one of the worst instances of violence on the DMZ in some time, further bloodshed was avoided.
Hoping to keep the incident quiet, the Army choose to withhold some awards immediately after the firefight. It would not be until the year 2000 that the Army recognized the service and awarded or upgraded seventeen decorations to participants on that day.
Matuzok, the defector that started everything, eventually was allowed to resettle in the U.S. as a refugee under an assumed name.