Lieutenant shares stories of life on ‘bizarre’ border


New Zealand Navy lieutenant Brett Fitzgerald has come home to Mosgiel this week with some great work stories to share.

Auckland-based Lt Fitzgerald (31), who grew up in Mosgiel and was educated at Taieri College and the University of Otago, has returned from a six-month deployment to the border between North and South Korea.

While visiting family in Mosgiel, Lt Fitzgerald gave a talk this week to Taieri College pupils about his experiences at the front line.

“It has always seemed a bizarre place, and it did not disappoint,” he said.

Based at Devonport naval base, Lt Fitzgerald works as a supply officer – a logistics role involving managing equipment and finance.

Having already experienced life in Korea – he taught English there before joining the New Zealand Navy in 2011 – and with a smattering of Korean under his belt, he jumped at the chance to take up a six-month deployment with the United National Command Military Armistice Commission in Korea.

Travelling to South Korea with wife Nicola, Lt Fitzgerald joined the small, but significant, New Zealand armed forces contingent in September 2017.

Living at the UN Base Camp Bonifas, Lt Fitzgerald spent most of his days at Panmunjeom, on the North Korean-South Korean border.

His duties included conducting tours of the demilitarised zone for distinguished visitors, including senior military figures and politicians, and monitoring the transport corridor between the two Koreas.

Lt Fitzgerald was fortunate to be at the border when a large contingent of North Korean athletes, officials, musicians and cheerleaders crossed into South Korea for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February.

“It was very busy for a while there, including dealing with a 130-piece North Korean orchestra and their three truck-loads of instruments,” he said.

With a complex of buildings straddling the border – including a room with a table that is half in the North and half in the South – guards from both sides are in close proximity.

But the experience of passing messages to North Korea was “quite bizarre”.

“There is a phone line that goes to North Korea, but they won’t answer it, so messages are often delivered using a megaphone or a nice loud voice,” Lt Fitzgerald said.

Given that the two Koreas are officially under an armistice in an ongoing war, the border could be quite a tense place.

Tensions rose briefly in November 2017, after a North Korean soldier defected to the south.

“Given that there are about two million landmines in the demilitarised zone, and a huge amount of surveillance, it was surprising that he came through,” Lt Fitzgerald said.

However, the border was quite popular with tourists, who toured the demilitarised zone with an armed escort.

In the last month of his deployment, Lt Fitzgerald was fortunate to be close to the peace talks.

“Everyone is hoping for the best, and it does seem as though there could be a chance to make a peace – there is room for both sides to move.”

Now, having returned to his duties in Devonport, Lt Fitzgerald hopes to one day be able to go back to South Korea.

“These types of jobs are quite competitive, but I would certainly go back if I got the chance.”