Santa Claus, on his way back to the North Pole Dec. 23, decided to drop in on Soldiers assigned to the United Nations Command Security Battalion - Joint Security Area, Camp Bonifas. Although Soldiers there guard the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, Santa knew the area is also a popular tourist attraction. Within minutes of entering the unit's main dining facility, however, he was mobbed by more than 20 students from a nearby school.
While Santa may have been briefly overwhelmed, he said the incident did not shake his confidence in the Soldiers who stood by while students tore at Santa's rented costume.
"We invited the Tae Sung Dong Elementary School students to lunch and to have a little Christmas party," said Santa (aka Lt. Col. John Rhodes, commander of UNCSB-JSA). "I'm responsible for civil affairs in Tae Sung Dong village so we developed a relationship with the elementary school by providing various types of support." Rhodes...ah...Santa said the UNCSB-JSA Soldiers teach English at the school and participate in their sporting events.
"Just yesterday we took them to Lotte World, through some sponsorship from the Good Neighbor program," he said. "So, what we're trying to do today is just spread a little Christmas cheer. We invited them up for lunch and to have 'Santa' hand out some Christmas gifts. All we're trying to do is say, 'Merry Christmas,' and we are always trying to strengthen the ROK-US alliance."
Tae Sung Dong is the only inhabited village inside the Demilitarized Zone, a 2A,A1/2-mile-wide buffer between North and South Korea, and is guarded by the U.N. Command.
The 210 to 220 or so villagers get about 12 to 15 acres more land than the average South Korean farmer, and incomes average $70,000 to $80,000 a year, according to State Department records.
They are direct descendants of people who owned the land before the 1950-53 Korean War. The armistice agreement allowed them to stay in the DMZ.
Since the village has only one school, elementary school students will have to pick a middle school in nearby cities such as Paju or Munsan.
Ms. Cho, Soon-hee, 1st grade teacher for TSD Elementary, said students in the past had little ambition for school. "Nowadays," she said, "our school is crowded (25 students). On Wednesdays and Fridays, American soldiers visit our school to teach English. They play with the students and sometimes have big events for our children. Our students now like coming to school every day. They don't like vacations, so our summer vacation is now just one week."
Spc. John Reosti has been tutoring the students in English on a regular basis since March 2008. "I'm trying as best I can," he said. "I think today is a good experience for them. They're getting a taste of American food and we learned they don't like our onion rings."
Sgt. David Bickley said he enjoys spending time with the students; especially during the holidays. "I'm away from my family and it's something to see little kids' faces light up just from being around us and interacting with them. I went to Lotte World with them yesterday; had a good time. They got to run around and ride rides."
Of the 25 students, only two had ever been to Lotte World. As for who had the most fun during the two days of festivities - children or the Soldiers - Bickley said, "I think it's a close call. We all had fun."