The hands that re-connected postwar Korea

Contributor: Kyung Lee

Wheeler, accompanied by the technical assistance of South Korean contractors, has planted tower stations across the country. He worked on one at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek between 2009 and 2012, which he says rivals those of leading telecommunications systems across the globe.

Topic: technology, telecomunication, Yongsan Legacy

The Yongsan Legacy team interviewing Ira Wheeler at former Camp Kim

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Ira Wheeler points toward Mount Nam where he installed an antenna station in the 1980s and 1990s. / Courtesy of Yongsan Legacy
Ira Wheeler points toward Mount Nam where he installed an antenna station in the 1980s and 1990s. / Courtesy of Yongsan Legacy

As the U.S. military relocates out of Yongsan Garrison, Yongsan Legacy aims to archive the living memories of those who served, worked and lived there. This is one of them. ― ED.

 

There’s no denying South Korea’s leading position as a telecommunications giant.

The nation accomplished the feat over more than half a century, with tentacles of fiber-optic cables and microwave signals stretching to all geographical corners. A large portion of its successful origins are credited to the services of Ira Wheeler and his team that continue to this day.

“Anywhere you look in Korea that has anything to do with telecommunications and IT, it has an Irish fingerprint somewhere,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler came to Korea in 1964, first assigned to the Eighth U.S. Army 304th Expeditionary Signal Battalion at Camp Coiner and later as an Army civilian contractor.

“There was not one mile of fiber-optic communications in Korea,” he said of his first days there.

He had signed up for leading the expansion of a decentralized communication infrastructure connecting all U.S. military stations with signals coming in and out of Yongsan Garrison.

Ira Wheeler points toward Mount Nam where he installed an antenna station in the 1980s and 1990s. / Courtesy of Yongsan Legacy
Ira Wheeler at the War Memorial of Korea / Courtesy of Yongsan Legacy

The Republic of Korea (ROK) Armed Forces later adopted the telecommunications system the Americans had planted in place, with the Korean private sector waiting in line to capitalize.

“The fiber cable that Samsung uses for private connectivity for those supercomputers? Well, they use the same [communication] duct we put in,” he said. “You’ve got a bunker that your president goes to before a war breaks out, out past Bangbae-dong? That’s also interconnected with Korean telecoms in there too.”

Wheeler’s notable accomplishments include installing an antenna station in Camp Morse, a now-defunct U.S. military communications facility on one of Mount Nam’s lower peaks. The antenna relayed TV and radio channels broadcast by American Forces Korea Network (AFKN) to receivers located as far away as Busan.

But the project wasn’t executed as swiftly as Wheeler had first predicted.

Aside from making modifications to the tower, a large crack in the antenna during assembly prompted Wheeler’s team to order a new one designed by Harris Corporation, a U.S.-based technology company that provides IT equipment and services to the U.S. military.

“I made the [South Korean] Ministry of Information and Communication go to the States and get a new antenna,” he said. “They wanted to put some glue on it and glue the piece back, and I said no, not going to happen!”

Wheeler’s initial estimate for the job was a year and a half, but it took eight years before the antenna was finally set up and broadcasting signals in April 1996.

Once completed, however, he called it “the biggest and most powerful transmitter in the American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) worldwide system.”

Ira Wheeler points toward Mount Nam where he installed an antenna station in the 1980s and 1990s. / Courtesy of Yongsan Legacy
The tower Ira Wheeler helped build still stands on one of Mount Nam’s lower peaks, the former site of Camp Morse. / Courtesy of Yongsan Legacy

Wheeler, accompanied by the technical assistance of South Korean contractors, has planted tower stations across the country. He worked on one at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek between 2009 and 2012, which he says rivals those of leading telecommunications systems across the globe.

He’s also contributed to other high-profile projects, such as the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) array in Seongju County of North Gyeongsang Province, as well as the U.S.-North Korea hotline, putting his team in direct contact with North Korea at the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone.

It was in 2002 when a “guy” from the United Nations Command (UNC) telephoned Wheeler to ask him to upgrade the Seoul-Pyongyang hotline connection, the northern end of which was a Korean War-era hand-crank TA-312 telephone located in Panmungak, a three-story building on the North Korean side.

On the day of installation _ with cables dug in and equipment ready to go to introduce the North Koreans to a modern telephone console _ Wheeler was about to step over the Demarcation Line and enter Panmungak accompanied by North Korean and UNC escorts _ until an incoming news report by CNN stopped him in his tracks.

Upon hearing a U.S. ambassador “has just told the North Koreans they are bunch of goddamn liars” through the airwaves that reached the peninsula, Wheeler said he couldn’t cross due to the risk of being taken hostage following the news report.

“Boss, you can’t afford to go over there to put that hotline in,” one of his colleagues, Mr. Na, told him. “I’ll do it. I’m Korean.”

Treading with heightened alertness upon entering the building, Na, according to Wheeler, was surrounded by North Korean soldiers standing guard from the main lobby and through the long hallway, with shoulders touching as he made his way to a small room where the TA-312 was sitting.

If one could imagine the current situation could get any more terrifying, Na’s North Korean and UNC escorts agreed to wait in another room for a chat over tea, allowing him to go about his business under the deathful stares of an intimidating company of men standing over him.

“You know, they just walked out the door and left me in there with 13 North Korean soldiers,” he told Wheeler when he crossed back over. “I was scared to death.”

After installing the new hotline and fax machine, Na made a successful test call from Panmungak to the Joint Duty Office, which required simple instructions of just picking up the phone until the ringing was answered on the opposite end.

“Send a test fax,” he said on the phone.

An American soldier in the bunker where Wheeler had taken shelter was reading a magazine at the time and found it timely to fax one of its pages over to the North.

And as the machine beeped and hummed out the page from its paper feed, a North Korean major picked it up and scanned it, attracting Na’s curiosity to peek at what Freedom House had sent.

A Playboy centerfold.

After taking some time to re-orient the page to get a closer look, the North Korean crumpled it up and added a simple but spot-on rebuke to the lewd fax: “Decadent Americans.”

The hotline operated until 2013 when it was severed amid deteriorating relations. Only on July 13 was it re-established when North Korea requested its reactivation. Whoever had the task of working on the North Korean end of the hotline, probably left fingerprints on the device over top of Wheeler’s and Na’s.


Visit YongsanLegacy.org to read more about the history of Seoul’s disappearing U.S. garrison or to contribute your own memories.

 

Published on 2018-July-16 in The Korea Times  http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/02/177_252359.html