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Panmunjom, the village of permanent tension

People who have crossed the MDL include murderous soldiers, a tycoon and a former U.S. president
Apr 27,2018
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Peace House on the South Korean side of Panmunjom, where two Korean leaders will have a bilateral summit meeting today. [YONHAP]
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When the Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, in Panmunjom by the U.S.-led United Nations Command and the North Korean and Chinese armies, a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force was meant to lead to a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Sixty-five years later, that goal has yet to be fulfilled.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has agreed to discuss denuclearization with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in when they meet today for the first inter-Korean summit since 2007 - and their first face-to-face interaction ever.

How far the 34-year-old will go is anyone’s guess.

When Moon walks into the same village as where the armistice agreement was signed more than half a century ago, a core mission will be to come out feeling confident that Kim is serious about giving up his nuclear arsenal - and that South Korea can push for a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War by replacing the armistice with a peace treaty.



How Panmunjom was born

The leaders of the two Koreas will be meeting at the Peace House, a South Korean-controlled building within the truce village of Panmunjom, which straddles the border. Kim, the third person to rule North Korea after his grandfather Kim Il Sung founded the country in 1948, will be the first North Korean head of state to step foot on South Korean soil since the end of the war, marking a historic moment in one of the last remaining vestiges of the 20th century’s Cold War.

Panmunjom lies 52 kilometers (32 miles) away from South Korea’s capital of Seoul as the crow flies and 147 kilometers from North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, near the western end of the 4-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone, which stretches 248 kilometers from coast to coast.

The truce village is frequently used as a metonym for the Joint Security Area (JSA), the only portion of the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face. It falls outside the jurisdiction of either country and is administered by the UN Command.

During the Korean War, talks for the armistice opened on July 8, 1951, when liaison officers of both coalitions - the UN Command and the North Korean and Chinese armies - convened in Kaesong, now a North Korean border town 8 kilometers away from Panmunjom. Some 20 rounds of discussions were held there until the UN Command suggested they relocate their negotiations to a different venue on Sept. 6, 1951, citing attacks from the North Korean military.

On Oct. 7, the North suggested they meet in a nearby village known for its taverns and named Neolmun-ri, to which the UN Command agreed on Oct. 8. The talks were resumed on Oct. 22, after which Chinese forces coined the area’s current name, Panmunjom, a portmanteau of the Chinese pronunciation of Neolmun and “jom,” Chinese for tavern.

After the armistice was signed, construction of the JSA began one kilometer away from where the cease-fire talks were actually held, and Neolmun-ri was wiped off the map.

Peace House, where the third inter-Korean summit will be held, is less than a five-minute walk from the military demarcation line (MDL) that bisects the JSA. At three stories high with a basement floor, the building was constructed on Dec. 19, 1989, and went through renovations completed around a year ago. Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in will hold their summit on the second floor, while a situation room monitoring the dialogue will be set up at an adjacent South Korean building named the Freedom House.

A hotline connecting both Koreas is set up at Freedom House and in Panmungak, a three-story building on North Korea’s side of the JSA. The hotline is used from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday, except on national holidays, with liaison officers calling each other up twice a day - once in the morning and once in the afternoon. On busy days like those leading up to an inter-Korean summit, the line operates around the clock seven days a week, allowing Seoul and Pyongyang to share information at any time.

That channel for dialogue was reopened in January after a 23-month suspension. In February 2016, North Korea severed all communication with the South in response to South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s shutting down of the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Complex following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test and a subsequent long-range rocket launch.

The North Korean building facing Peace House across the MDL is Tongilgak, a one-story building with a basement floor that is used as a venue for talks near the border.

Between Freedom House and Panmungak lie three blue one-story buildings administered by the UN Command known as conference row, which all sit atop the MDL. They are called T1, T2 and T3, in order from left to right as seen from the South Korean side.

“T” stands for temporary. T2, known as the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room, is open to tourists visiting the DMZ under strict rules, allowing tourists to briefly step into North Korean territory. T1 is the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission Conference Room and T3 is another Military Armistice Commission Conference Room. The buildings are still used as meeting venues.



Important inter-Korean talks

Since the first post-war inter-Korean meeting was held on Aug. 20, 1971, 657 meetings have been held between the two countries, of which 94 took place in Peace House and 362 were in other buildings in Panmunjom.

Topics varied from politics and humanitarian aid to economic cooperation and military conflict. Preparations for inter-Korean summits were often discussed here, with both countries taking turns crossing the border to hold meetings on the other side.

The truce village was in the media spotlight on Jan. 9, when days after Kim Jong-un said he was willing to have his country participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, officials from both Koreas met at Peace House for the first high-level meeting since December 2015, a thaw in relations iced over by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.

At the meeting, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to boost inter-Korean cooperation in various fields and hold more talks to iron out the North’s participation in the Games, which were to be held in South Korea’s easternmost province of Gangwon a month afterward. Inter-Korean dialogue took off with speed and strong momentum from there on, culminating in today’s summit between Moon and Kim.



High-profile incidents

Panmunjom used to be the only area within the DMZ where members of each side had the freedom of movement - until the most brutal event in the history of the JSA broke out on Aug. 18, 1976, infamously known today as the axe murder incident.

United Nations troops were attacked by North Korean soldiers while trimming a poplar tree in the DMZ at Panmunjom. North Korean soldiers killed two American officers with axes. The next morning, Kim Il Sung ordered the North Korean military into battle positions. South Korea’s President Park Chung Hee reached an agreement with U.S. President Gerald Ford to react. On Aug. 21, the UN Command carried out Operation Paul Bunyan, named after an American folk legend lumberjack, to cut down the tree instead of just trimming the branches. The tree-cutting was accompanied by an enormous show of force by South Korea and the United States, including seven Cobra attack helicopters flying overhead. For the first time since the Korean War, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung sent a message expressing regret for the incident to the United Nations Command, but without directly taking responsibility.

On Aug. 15, 1989, Lim Su-kyung, a student at South Korea’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, made international headlines when she arrived in Panmunjom after an unauthorized trip to North Korea. The unification activist had participated in the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in Pyongyang, organized by the North Korean government, which South Korean authorities believed to be a propaganda tool. Lim, who attended as a representative of her anti-American student group, met North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and was given the nickname “Flower of Unification” by the regime. Lim, who at the time was Catholic, was escorted by Father Moon Kyu-hyun, who said he was dispatched by the Korean Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice to protect her.

Back in South Korea, Lim and Father Moon were sentenced to five years in prison for violating the national security law but served three and a half years before being released on parole. In 1999, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung pardoned Lim, after which she entered politics in 2012 as a proportional lawmaker in the Democratic United Party, a predecessor of the current ruling Democratic Party.

Ri In-mo, a former North Korean war correspondent who was captured by South Korea during the Korean War while fighting as a guerilla, was repatriated to his home country on March 19, 1993, after serving 34 years in jail for refusing to disavow Pyongyang and vow allegiance to Seoul. The political prisoner was sent back through Panmunjom. On Sept. 2, 2002, the Kim Dae-jung administration repatriated 63 more prisoners to the North via Panmunjom in an effort to sustain the conciliatory inter-Korean mood following his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in June 2000. The 63 prisoners were showered with praise in the North, which even issued a commemorative postage stamp honoring them.

On June 15, 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter arrived at Panmunjom with his wife Rosalynn to cross the border into North Korea for talks with Pyongyang authorities on nuclear weapons, bringing the truce village into the global spotlight once again. The Bill Clinton administration had been considering a pre-emptive air strike on the North’s main Yongbyon nuclear facility with precision-guided bombs after denuclearization talks between the two countries foundered. The North threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”

Tensions grew so high that Carter volunteered to visit the North, which Clinton agreed to as long as Carter made clear he was acting as a private citizen. Carter crossed the DMZ, and on June 16, 1994, brokered the outline of an agreement with Kim Il Sung through which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for Washington’s halt of a sanctions drive in the UN and resumption of inter-governmental talks. The former president crossed back into South Korea through Panmunjom on June 18.

Chung Ju-yung, the late founder of the Hyundai Group, drove 500 head of cattle across Panmunjom on June 17, 1998, in a stream of convoys for what was later coined by the U.S. military as “Operation Rawhide,” in an effort to help North Korean farmers, ease chronic food shortages in the North and bridge the gap between the two Koreas. Chung, who at the time was 83, visited Tongchon, his hometown in Kangwon Province, and talked with North Korean officials about business opportunities, which led to the Mount Kumgang tourist project. Four months later on Oct. 27, the Hyundai tycoon donated 501 more head of cattle, which also traveled through Panmunjom.

The truce village is the most heavily fortified area of the DMZ, yet many North Korean soldiers have dared to defect to South Korea through this route, like last November, when 22-year-old O Chang-song dashed across the MDL. North Korean guards showered some 40 rounds on him, wounding him in five areas in the shoulder, abdomen and elbow.

An investigation by the UN Command later found that the North broke the truce twice by firing weapons across the MDL and when one of its soldiers temporarily crossed the line while pursuing the defector. The dramatic scene was caught on the Command’s CCTV and revealed to media.



Tourism destination

South Korea runs several observatories along its side of the border, where coin-operated binoculars allow curious tourists a chance to peer into North Korea. Tourism also proliferates at the JSA, where tour operators unload buses of local and foreign tourists for a look around several places within Panmunjom, including Freedom House, the Bridge of No Return, and the exact location of the axe murder incident. On TripAdvisor, the JSA tour is honored with a coveted four and a half stars.

Last year, 75,000 people toured the JSA, 68 percent of whom hailed from a foreign country. North Korea, which also runs tour programs on its side of the truce village, saw 25,000 visitors last year, 75 percent of whom were foreigners, according to data from South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North.

On South Korea’s side, the tourists keep coming even though they are required to read and sign a morbid declaration form. The trip, it says, will “entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]