In October of 1993,
Congressman Gary Ackerman went on a mission of mercy – and made
history in the process.
The former Pomonok resident became the first American to cross the infamous
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Korea – the infamous border that divides
North and South Korea.
The heavily fortified border, which is located on the globe’s
38th parallel and was created as part of the armistice that ended the
Korean War in 1953, not only keeps the industrial South separate from
the Communist North, but also symbolizes the emotional pain that the
Korean people have endured.
Ackerman, who at the time was concerned about the possibility of the
North arming itself with nuclear weapons, crossed the parallel to discuss
the situation with North Korean President Kim Il Sung. He was only the
second American in history to meet with the North Korean leader.
He said in 1993, “I went for several reasons. We have grave concerns
about the nuclear problem. North Korea is the first real case of a country
threatening to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If
the country goes nuclear, there’s a tremendous potential for a
nuclear arms race between the North, the South, Korea and Japan.”
But while foreign affairs and world politics were major topics of conversation
at the historic meeting, Ackerman also had the Queens community on his
He said in 1993, “With so many Korean Americans in Queens, I was
concerned. Throughout the years, they’ve told me in quiet moments
that they have a mother, brother or sister left behind after the partition
During dinner with Il Sung, Ackerman handed a list of Queens Korean
Americans who were worried about relatives and loved ones in North Korean.
Ackerman asked if Il Sung could discuss the fates of those loved ones
– he agreed.
Ackerman is greeted by North Korea officials after
making his historic walk across the DMZ.
the historic meeting a success, although it wasn’t one of his
The entire time that Ackerman and his entourage – including Tribune
Associate Publisher Michael Nussbaum – were near the 38th Parallel
in South Korea, they were surrounded by United States soldiers, just
in case of a shooting.
Once Ackerman walked over the one foot wide, three inch tall barrier
that divides the Korean people, he was told by a North Korean general
not to look directly in the eyes of North Korean troops. Ackerman said
that he was told, “It might provoke them into shooting me.”
Once on the North side, Ackerman was watched carefully by soldiers in
uniform, weapons close by.
None of that threw Ackerman off his game, though. After calmly touring
both nations and meeting with Il Sung, he hopped on the barrier, straddled
it, saluted both sides, and then walked back into South Korea.
But before he left for good, he left behind a bit of himself for the
North Koreans to remember. He quickly pinned a Big Apple pin on a surprised
North Korean officer before jumping over the barrier.
That pin wasn’t the only thing Ackerman left in Korea.
He left behind the legacy of breaking the barrier and crossing the DMZ
for the first time. Many have taken the walk since, but they were all
walking in his footsteps.
In 1993, after his historic trip, Ackerman said, “If indeed this
contributes to a better understanding, and I suspect it did, then it’s
worth an entire career.”