The November 2017 defection of a North Korean soldier has brought increased awareness to the Joint Security Area (JSA). However, the North Korean soldier was not the first time that someone has defected at the Joint Security Area. In 1984 a defection by a Russian student visiting the North Korean side of the JSA led to one of the largest and deadliest shootouts in the history of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The shootout would claim the life of one ROK soldier and seriously wound one US soldier while killing three North Korean soldiers with many more wounded.
Prelude to A Shootout
On the morning of Friday, November 23, 1984 there were no tours scheduled for the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area (JSA) due to the Thanksgiving holiday the prior day. This meant it should have been a fairly low key day for the United States (US) and Republic of Korea (ROK) troops stationed at the JSA. However, the North Koreans had a tour planned on their side of the border for a group of Russian exchange students. Half of the group Russians were normal exchange students attending Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang while the other half were from the Moscow Institute of International Relations. Of interest is that a ROK Drop favorite and noted North Korean expert Professor Andrei Lankov was one of the Russian exchange students on the tour that day.
In Lankov’s account he says students from the Moscow Institute were from the upper classes of Soviet society and they were usually groomed to become diplomats, international businessmen, or spies. The eliteness of the Moscow Institute students was shown by how they were allowed to stay at the Russian embassy in Pyongyang instead of being put up in the North Korean dorms at Kim Il Sung University like the Russian exchange students like Lankov were housed at.
At 11:30 AM the Russian tour group approached the blue colored UN Military Armistice Commission (MAC) buildings to stop and take pictures. The MAC buildings are used to conduct meetings and are cut in half by the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) which is the official border between the two rival countries. The group stopped at the MAC building to take pictures while they were guarded by one North Korean soldier. One of the students from the Moscow Institute, the 22-year old Vasily Yakovlevich Matuzok asked the soldier from the Korea’s People’s Army (KPA) to stand next to him and pose for a picture. While the soldier posed for the picture Matuzok turned around and made a dash across the MDL into South Korea.
The North Korean guard immediately turned around and chased Matuzok across the MDL. As it became clear the Russian was getting away the KPA soldier pulled out his pistol to shoot at the fleeing student. Other North Korean soldiers began to chase Matuzok across the MDL as well. Matuzok remembers running across the border towards three US and ROK soldiers. Two of the soldiers remained in their positions while a third soldier ran away. Matuzok decided to follow the fleeing soldier. After the shooting started Matuzok sought cover in some bushes south of the Sunken Garden.
One of the US soldiers on duty that day in Checkpoint #4, Private First Class (PFC) Richard Howard saw the dash by Matuzok across the border and he immediately raised the alarm to alert the rest of the platoon on duty that day. This alert warned the rest of the US and ROK soldiers on duty to pull out their rifles and prepare for combat.
The two of the soldiers that Matuzok saw while running were PFC Michael A. Burgoyne and Korean Augmentee to the US Army (KATUSA) PFC Chang Ayung Gi. The two soldiers at the time were escorting a civilian work crew when Matuzok ran by them yelling for help. The soldiers reacted quickly by pulling out their .45 caliber pistols and shooting at the North Korean soldiers chasing him. PFC Burgoyne shot one of the soldiers chasing Matuzok. The shooting of the North Korean soldier caused the rest of the North Korean soldiers to stop chasing Matuzok and instead return fire at Burgoyne and Chang. By this time over 20 KPA soldiers were chasing Matuzok and two of them were armed with machine guns and the rest with pistols. Burgoyne and Chang did not stand a chance against the superior firepower; Burgoyne took a round to his lower face and neck while Chang was shot through his right eye and was dead before reaching the ground. However, the covering fire provided by Burgoyne and Chang gave Matuzok the time he needed to hide in some nearby bushes to escape the North Koreans.
The Shootout Intensifies
Simultaneously while the KPA was shooting at Burgoyne and Chang, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Johnny Taylor ordered the troops within Checkpoint #4 to get out the M-16’s they had hidden and exit the building to engage the advancing North Koreans. The superior firepower provided by SFC Taylor’s men forced the KPA soldiers to seek cover in the Sunken Garden area of the JSA. Two KPA soldiers with machine guns then advanced from north of the MDL to try and lay suppressive fire on Taylor’s group to help their pinned down comrades. However, Specialist David Cotton, Jr.and ROK Army Private First Class Oh Yong-Suk returned fire at the two KPA’s soldiers from the vicinity of Checkpoint #5. This suppressive fire was enough to distract the KPA soldiers from laying effective suppressive fire on SFC Taylor’s men.
At this point it was a full fledged shootout involving over 20 soldiers on each side. While this was going on the reports of the shootout were relayed back to the tactical operations center (TOC) at Camp Kitty Hawk, the base camp for the JSA. The Joint Security Force Company Commander Captain Bert Mizusawa was immediately summoned to the TOC after receiving word of the shootout. CPT Mizusawa mustered the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) prepositioned near the TOC and they raced up the road to the JSA in their jeeps to Checkpoint #2. They arrived at CP #2 approximately 15 minutes since the defection of Matuzok. Mizusawa ordered one squad of the QRF to advance north towards the helipad to assist SFC Taylor’s men engaging the North Koreans at the Sunken Garden.
CPT Mizusawa then led the other two squads to the west and then north to outflank the KPA in the Sunken Garden and seal off any avenues of approach the KPA could use to reinforce the troops at the Sunken Garden. While advancing they found Matuzok hiding in the bushes south of the Sunken Garden. This was the first time that CPT Mizusawa fully understood what had happened. He immediately secured the defector and made sure he was safely taken back to Camp Kitty Hawk. The defector was the evidence that the US and ROK troops needed to prove that this firefight was caused by an armed incursion into the JSA by the KPA. If the defector was killed the North Koreans could claim he was kidnapped by the US and the KPA responded to the kidnapping. With Matuzok alive the lies could be easily countered.
While Matuzok was being transported back to Camp Kitty Hawk by the QRF platoon sergeant SFC Howard Williams, the QRF continued to outflank the enemy penned down in the Sunken Garden as well as fend off attacks from the west from KPA troops trying to reinforce them. While this was going on SPC Jon Orlicki was firing a 40mm grenade launcher from CP #4 towards the Sunken Garden. With the KPA penned down CPT Mizusawa ordered the QRF squad to the south led by Staff Sergeant (SSG) Richard Lamb to assault through the Sunken Garden. With the US troops advancing on them the KPA troops tried to retreat from the Sunken Garden and found no means of escape, they instead dropped their weapons and surrendered.
The surrender of the KPA happened approximately six minutes after the QRF had arrived. Seeing that the KPA had surrendered CPT Mizusawa called for a truck to come up to the Sunken Garden to transport the prisoners. The KPA had clearly violated the armistice and murdered a ROK soldier while doing so. However, bureaucracy and procedural processes would lead to the KPA soldiers being allowed to be immediately evacuated back to North Korea. Here is how an excellent article written by retired Colonel Thomas Hanson on the US Army Museum website describes what happened:
Shortly after the shooting started, the KPA Joint Duty Officer, Major Park, telephoned U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Randy A. Brooks in the UNC Joint Duty Officer building to request a cease-fire. Park also requested authorization to cross the MDL with six unarmed personnel to evacuate the dead and wounded KPA soldiers. Staff Sergeant Brooks relayed this information to the US/UN/Combined Forces Command operations center in Seoul without informing Captain Mizusawa or any member of his chain of command. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Earl E. Bechtold, the UNCMAC Assistant Secretary, was the senior UNCMAC officer in Seoul that day. Unable to speak with UNC senior leaders who were visiting offshore islands in the East China Sea and receiving no authoritative instructions from anyone in Seoul, on his own authority Bechtold granted the KPA request without qualification. Staff Sergeant Brooks then ran down to the Sunken Garden yelling, “Cease fire, cease fire.” Mizusawa ordered his men to ignore Brooks, who had no command authority. Several minutes later, Lieutenant Thomas received confirmation of the order via telephone from Captain Nowak in the operations center. Thomas radioed to Mizusawa that the order had come from “CP Seoul.”
I think it is arguable that a decision of this magnitude should not have been made by a lieutenant colonel back in Seoul who may not have had a complete picture of what had happened. I think a major armistice violation like this should have required a general officer’s decision which would have forced a more complete accounting of what had happened before making a decision. Regardless, the decision allowed the North Koreans to police up their dead and remove evidence of their armistice violation. Something surprising about this whole situation was that no one had a camera on them to take pictures of the captured, wounded, and dead KPA soldiers on the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area. The pictures would have been clear evidence of the armistice violations by the North Korean soldiers. Cameras back then were not as ubiquitous as they are today, but it just seems like the JSA back then still would have had a lot of cameras present to capture armistice violations.
After the North Koreans evacuated their personnel back across the MDL, Mizusawa then began to take stock of casualties. Considering how fierce the firefight was, the US and ROK forces only suffered one wounded and one killed in action. The wounded was PFC Burgoyne who was shot in the neck and the dead was ROK soldiers PFC Chang who was shot through the eye during the initial portion of the firefight. The KPA on the other hand officially reported three killed in action and one wounded though it is believed there were far more wounded.
However, death for North Korean soldiers did not end with the conclusion of the 1984 JSA shootout. Representatives from the Swiss and Swedish delegations to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission who were present on the north side of the MDL following the shootout reported that surviving KPA soldiers who had surrendered at the Sunken Garden got into a bitter argument with more senior North Korean officers. Two North Korean KPA guards were then executed behind the main North Korean JSA building. This all happened just minutes after the firefight. There have been unconfirmed reports that one of the men executed was Lieutenant Pak Chul who was the KPA soldier who murdered former JSA Security Company Commander, Captain Arthur Bonifas during the 1976 DMZ Axe Murder Incident. After the 1984 shootout Pak was never seen again at the JSA.
If anyone thinks the US side was happy to have Matuzok defect, they would be wrong. After the incident the JSA Battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Charles Viale confronted Matuzok to remind him that a JSA soldier had died and another was seriously wounded by his actions. The Russian student Andrei Lankov who was there that day was also very critical of Matuzok’s actions:
He did it, he told the Americans in the interview, because it was his first-ever chance to flee to the West, countering North Korea’s claim that he had been forced to flee. Lankov is less sympathetic, arguing that the defection was needlessly risky and cost lives when there would have been better opportunities to defect.
“I believe he risked the lives of himself and others, some of which were indeed killed, for no reason,” he argues. “He even risked provoking an armed confrontation in a highly tense part of the world. He was smart and educated enough to understand (this).”
“Matuzok’s eventual job as a diplomat would assuredly give him innumerable opportunities to defect without the risks and bloodshed.” [NK News.org]
In the days after the shooting the North Koreans claimed that the US started the firefight and violated the armistice. During meetings following the shooting the US side produced evidence showing it was the North Koreans who initiated the firefight and violated the armistice:
At the commission meeting today, Admiral Horne produced photographs and tape recordings to back up his assertions that the North Koreans had violated the armistice. In one tape recording, made through a microphone that had been left on, bursts of automatic weapons fire could be heard distinctly, soon after voices had shouted in Korean, ”Hey, hands up!” and ”Catch him!”
”The fact is when your guards realized that a member of their tour was running to freedom, they drew their weapons and pursued him deep into our portion of the J.S.A., repeatedly firing at him with deadly weapons,” the admiral said. [New York Times – November 27, 1984]
In response the North Koreans repeatedly tried to claim that the US and ROK soldiers kidnapped the Russian student after he inadvertently stepped over the MDL:
In response, North Korean officers produced bullets that they said had been fired from American-made automatic weapons.
United States officials acknowledged later that their soldiers had brought in machine guns and M-16 rifles, but said they had belonged to a force posted outside the security area and had acted only after the North Korean firing started. ‘You Are the Criminals’
”You are the criminals for the latest incident, and should bear responsibility for it,” said the chief North Korean delegate, Maj. Gen. Li Tae Ho of the North Korean Army.
General Li repeated earlier North Korean assertions that Mr. Matuzok, a trainee with the Soviet Embassy in Pyongyang, was not a defector and should be returned to the north. The young man, he said, had ”inadvertently” stepped over a boundary line and was immediately grabbed by United Nations Command soldiers who fired at the North Koreans. [New York Times – November 27, 1984]
To counter the North Korean claims, the US released an interview with Matuzok where he described what happened and verifies that he crossed on his own free will. He also stated that he planned to defect for 2 years and the trip to Panmunjom was his “very first opportunity to go to the West.”:
Following the debrief, Matuzok was then turned over to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Rome.
Matuzok would eventually be allowed to resettle in the United States. In 1986 Matuzok gave an interview to the Christian Science Monitor where he disclosed that he lived in Boston and worked in the maintenance department of a large hotel under a new name:
He moved to Boston to enroll in an English-as-a-second-language program. At the end of this — with his English greatly improved — he took a job in the maintenance department of a large Boston hotel “fixing vacuum cleaners, painting things, everything.” At the same time, he began studying in a technical school. Today he is a special student at a Boston-area university, where he is taking courses on US military policy and China. (……….)
But many defectors, such as Matuzok, have only limited usefulness as intelligence sources and don’t fall under the care of the CIA once they are in this country. Matuzok was a college intern assigned to the Soviet Embassy in North Korea when he defected.
Matuzok’s main concern now is his career. He has taken on a new, somewhat-WASPy name and dresses well above the borderline-Bohemian style popular in Boston intellectual circles.
The Jamestown Foundation’s Geimer says most defectors are apprehensive about their new identities — “some much more so than others.” In Matuzok’s case, he says, it probably wasn’t necessary for him to change his name. When asked about this, Matuzok — who asked that his new name not be used in this article — simply replies that he prefers to make it as difficult as possible for Soviet authorities to keep track of him. [Christian Science Monitor]
What happened to Matuzok after this 1986 interview is largely unknown. Lankov claims that he heard Matuzok died in a traffic accident in Canada in 1990 while a Russian reporter claims that he now lives in San Francisco. I could not even find a picture of Matuzok which shows how much of a low profile he has kept over the years.
For the soldiers involved in the shootout the US tried to keep things very low profile as well. This was because the Soviets had entered into discussions with the United States. The fact that the Soviets did not react strongly to the defection was a sign to the Reagan administration that they were serious about those discussions. In response the Reagan administration wanted to keep the shootout as low key as possible in order to not rub it into the faces of the Soviets. However, there were some valor awards initially given out. For example Captain Bert Mizusawa was recognized with the Bronze Star. After the 1984 JSA shootout Mizusawa would go on to have a distinguished military career. He retired as a Major General in 2013. After retiring he got involved in politics and became a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign.
The deceased PFC Chang and the wounded PFC Burgoyne were both recognized with Bronze Stars with Valor as well. PFC Burgoyne who was shot in the face would eventually recover from his wounds:
However none of the soldiers who fought at the JSA that day received valor awards or were recognized with the Combat Infantrymen’s Badge (CIB). The CIB is big honor for infantrymen to wear and at the time firefights at the DMZ were not included as part of the criteria for issuing it. That policy did not change until 2000 when Congressional lobbying was able to get the regulations changed and all soldiers who fought that day in the JSA were recognized with CIBs. They additionally could wear a combat patch on their right sleeve. Furthermore various valor awards were issued as well.
The highest valor medal issued for the 1984 JSA shootout was the Silver Star that was awarded to members of Staff Sergeant Richard Lamb’s squad. Lamb was the noncommissioned officer who led the QRF squad that assaulted through the Sunken Garden and forced the North Koreans to surrender to end the shootout. SSG Lamb would go on to join the Special Forces, was wounded at the Battle of Mogadishu, and ended his career serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He retired as a Command Sergeant Major in 2003.
Not every soldier was able to receive their valor award in 2000. Private First Class Mark Deville was a member of the squad that the Pentagon could not track down to award a medal to. He was working as a prison guard in Florida at the time and had lost contact with his old military buddies. It wasn’t until 2014 that Deville did a Google search of himself and found that he had been awarded a Silver Star for his combat actions 30 years ago during the JSA shootout.
Today the events of the November 23, 1984 shootout at the JSA are remembered with an annual ceremony. During these annual ceremonies flowers are laid at a memorial marker at the JSA in remembrance of Private First Class Chang Myong-ki.
Chang’s parents and other family members often attend the annual ceremony. Soldiers who were at the JSA that day have also attended the ceremony as well. For example the then Major General Bert Mizusawa attended one of the ceremonies in 2011. Here is what he had to say about the significance of the events that day:
“The firefight was, in many ways, the last hot battle of the Cold War fought between a Soviet proxy and the U.S.-Korean alliance that was proudly embodied in the bravery and sacrifice of the young two-man team of Jang and Burgoyne,” he said. “For that, all members past and present of this great unit, and the Jang family, should be … proud.
“While their actions were very brief … the consequences of their actions I think will earn a significant place in our world history,” he continued.
Mizusawa went on to explain that diaries released in recent years suggest that then-President Ronald Reagan was surprised by how the Soviet Union reacted to “the unheralded 1984 Soviet defector incident” and, as a result, he was inspired to take a “hardline stance” toward the U.S. adversary which “accelerated the demise of the Soviet empire and helped end the Cold War.”
“This defector incident confirmed to our strong-willed president at the time that he should face down the Soviet leadership,” said Mizusawa, who now serves as deputy director for strategic initiatives for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. [Stars & Stripes]
I think it is good that the Pentagon has recognized the soldiers who fought that day with the appropriate valor awards and recognition. I also think it is great the JSA security battalion continues to honor the memory of PFC Jang who was killed in the JSA shootout. However, what I think is still missing is a heartfelt thank you from Vasily Matuzok. If he is still alive, Matuzok would be in mid-50’s by now, I really think he owes it to Jang Myung-ki’s family and the JSA veterans that served that day to attend one of these ceremonies. At the ceremony he should thank everyone who put it all on the line for him that day. In PFC Jang’s case he gave all he had so Matuzok could live in freedom in the United States. This is a heavy burden that hopefully Matuzok has never forgotten because clearly the veterans stationed at the JSA on November 23, 1984 have never forgotten and neither should he.
- A Forty Minute Korean War (Army History.org)
- Fire Fight in Panmunjom (JSA Vets)
- The Quite Victory (JSA Vets)
- 20 Years Later Remembering A Deadly Firefight at Korea’s DMZ (Stars & Stripes)
- General Revisits Deadly 1984 Thanksgiving Firefight at DMZ (Stars & Stripes)
- A Russian Crosses the Line: A Different Kind of North Korean Defection (NK News)
- Merry Mad Monks on the DMZ (Merry Mad Monks website)