Reporter's Notebook: Brooke Baldwin visits US troops in South Korea under threat of war
Posted October 31, 2017 10:35 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — My 14-hour flight from New York to Seoul was just the beginning. The next morning, my CNN crew and I found ourselves strapped into the Navy's C-2 COD (carrier onboard delivery) aircraft. Only this plane doesn't exactly come with peanuts and a Coke. Instead, I was tethered to a metal seat by four seat belts and facing backwards, helmet on, with only two tiny windows in the entire cabin.
Ninety minutes later, our Navy pilots lined us up with the USS Ronald Reagan, the aircraft carrier in the waters below. As the C-2 started its sharp descent, my heart started to pound. I knew I'd only have two hours to shoot our story and get it right.
I also knew, having done this once before, the adrenaline rush that comes with the "catch." Because the carrier's runway is so short, our plane had a tail hook to catch one of the cable wires on the flight deck and keep us from skidding into the ocean. The pilot has to get it just right. In a successful catch you go from 150 knots to zero in five seconds.
The sailors seated with us gave us the cue to brace ourselves, shouting "Let's go, let's go LET'S GO!" Then we heard a THUDDDDDD and a loud grinding of metal. I had no idea where we'd just landed --- I wasn't allowed to know our location --- but what I did know was that my journey in Korea had officially begun.
The idea for my trip
I remember sitting in my office in New York several months ago --- it was one of those weeks when the war of words between Washington and Pyongyang was particularly intense --- and saying to my producer: "I wonder what it's like to be an American in South Korea right now."
My mind instantly went to our men and women in the military who are based precariously closely to North Korea. Could they feel the intensity that we were feeling back at home? And what about their families, many of whom moved with them to Korea? Are they afraid or anxious? In a worst case scenario, what would they do?
I remember tornado drills at school as a kid and wondered, do these American kids in Korea hold nuclear drills? I wanted to know, and I thought CNN's viewers would want to know, too. The US Army offered rare access to several soldiers and their families. And the US Navy gave me access to sailors.
Theirs are the voices I needed to tell this story.
Proud of their daddy
The Army portion of our journey included a road trip, a tour in Blackhawk helicopter and a step --- if only for a minute --- into North Korea.
We visited Camp Casey, Yongsan Garrison, Camp Bonifas and the DMZ.
I interviewed Lt. Col. Aaron Bright, who serves as commander of the 1st Battalion, 38th Field Artillery regiment. His battalion operates multiple rocket launchers and is part of the northernmost deployed brigade in South Korea, making them a first line of defense. I also spoke to his soldiers, who told me why they signed up to serve.
And I interviewed Col. Bright's wife and their three daughters, who live an hour and a half away. They talked about the adjustment to life in South Korea and how normal it has become.
And as they talked about how proud they are of their daddy, the tears started to fall.
'That there... is North Korea'
Another day, I boarded a Black Hawk helicopter and flew over the countryside. Our CNN crew didn't fully appreciate until we'd arrived how picturesque Korea truly is.
We arrived in the fall when the leaves in the hills had just started to turn --- at sunset, it looked as though we were flying over the Catskills. As I peered through my window, I saw villages and rice fields punctuated with Army bunkers and rocket test sites. It was this juxtaposition of normal life alongside endless uncertainty.
And then I heard over my headset... "That there... is North Korea." Col. Jon Howerton was pointing to an imposing mountain range in the distance. I just stared. That was it --- this secretive country we know so little about.
I talk so often about it from the comfort of my studio in Manhattan, but to be flying close enough to make out its towering flag was something I will never forget.
Against a molten sunset, I thought of the grim gulags and the daily misery of North Korea's people. I thought of my interview with Otto Warmbier's parents and his inhuman suffering. I thought of the Americans still being held there today.
And I was grateful to the men and women in the US military for protecting us.
I arrived at the DMZ -- along the 38th parallel which divides North and South Korea -- and was instructed not to point or wave at anyone. We were surrounded by armed guards and prying towers with cameras. Behind dark sunglasses, the South Korean soldiers hold a ready jiujitsu position. A concrete curb defines the line between the two nations.
One visitor asked: "What would happen if someone ran towards the line?" A soldier responded: "You don't want to find out."
No, we didn't. Our group was directed inside one of the blue UN buildings where negotiations are held. This building straddles the border, so for a brief moment inside, you're allowed to cross into North Korean territory. I did and got a photo.
Nearby, I interviewed 19-year-old PFC Joshua Roberson from Florida. He joined the Army after graduating high school. He'd never left the US before, and now he's stationed a stone's throw from North Korea.
Octopus, kimchi and fried chicken
My journey to South Korea wouldn't be complete without spending time with Americans who choose to live here. So on a Saturday night in Seoul, over a dinner of octopus, kimchi and fried chicken, I talked to a group of expats who spoke about their love for Korea, what it's like living under constant nuclear threat and who worries them more -- North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un or President Trump.
What's my takeaway from all of this? Americans in Korea, much like Koreans themselves, are just like us. They go to work every day, send their kids to school and try not to fixate on the threats that hang over them... threats that they acknowledge are on the rise.