News / Asia

Tense Standoff Continues for 60th Year in Korean DMZ

Tense Standoff Continues for 60th Year in Korean DMZi
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April 18, 2013
The tense situation on the Korean peninsula may be the world’s most urgent security challenge. However, unlike threats from Iran or Syria’s civil war, the Korean situation has been unresolved for more than 60 years. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman has details from the conflict's most recognized flashpoint: Panmunjom in the Korean DMZ (demilitarized zone).
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— The tense situation on the Korean peninsula may be the world’s most urgent security challenge. However, unlike threats from Iran or Syria’s civil war, the Korean situation has been unresolved for more than 60 years. The conflict's most recognized flashpoint is Panmunjom in the Korean DMZ (demilitarized zone).

The division of North and South Korea has spanned seven decades. Neither side recognizes the other diplomatically and both claim the entire peninsula.

The peninsula is divided along the 38th parallel. And, it is in the United Nations Military Armistice Commission's conference room T-2, where attempts have been made over the years to resolve the lingering differences.

Herman: "So when we are crossing this table here, we are actually crossing into North Korea?"

U.S. soldier: “Yes, you'll be crossing into North Korea....The microphones on this table ...are recording and monitored 24 hours a day. The microphones also represent the military demarcation line within the building. So you sir and a few of us standing on this side of the table are now standing inside North Korea at this time;  while everybody else on that side of the building still remains in the Republic of Korea.”

Herman: “So, technically, how are we allowed to be inside North Korea right now? What constitutes that?”

U.S. soldier: “We are allowed to be here because this is a building that's governed by the United Nations command.”

General officers of the United States-led U.N. Command and the North Korean army have not met in the room since March of 2009.

In recent weeks, North Korea, has threatened to renew war and to launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the United States.

On March 5 of this year, North Korea declared it was abrogating the ceasefire that it had signed, along with China and the U.S.-led U.N. command 60 years ago. It made a similar pronouncement in 2009.

“Just one party cannot abrogate the armistice treaty," said Shin Chang-hoon, an international law and conflict resolution specialist at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. "There must a consensus. There must be consent from other parties to the armistice treaty. So the North Korean's argument of the nullification of armistice treaty doesn't have any grounds.”

Exactly 1,000 meters from here, due North, is where on July 27, 1953, the armistice was signed, bringing to an end hostilities in the Korean War. But, no peace treaty has been signed.

Shin says he does not see any progress towards a peace treaty until the current hostile rhetoric eases.

“There must be a certain cooling-off period between both Koreas," he said. "Then, as [South Korean] President Park Geun-hye proposed a certain trust-building process, within this framework of a trust-building process, I think there may be certain negotiations on the peace treaty.”  

Until there is a peace treaty or Korean unification as a result of war or the collapse of the North, this scene will continue to play out every day: soldiers from two of the world's largest armies standing at alert in a tense standoff.

  • A North Korean soldier peering into South Korea in the Joint Security Area, April 17, 2013. (VOA/S. Herman)
  • Three South Korean soldiers looking into North Korea, April 17, 2013. (VOA/S. Herman)
  • A South Korea soldiers straddles his country and North Korea inside the T2 conference room, April 17, 2013. (VOA/S. Herman)
  • North Korea's Panmungak Building in the Joint Security Area, April 17, 2013. (VOA/S. Herman)
  • U.S. Army Private First Class Brian Dors of of the United Nations Command Security Battalion-Joint Security Area, April 17, 2013. (VOA/S. Herman)
  • A roadblock in South Korea at Paju where unauthorized traffic is prohibited from heading into the DMZ, April 17, 2013. (VOA/S. Herman)
  • Two South Korean soldiers outside the T1 building which straddles South and North Korea, April 17, 2013. (VOA/S. Herman)
  • A hilltop North Korean observation post in the DMZ, April 17, 2013. (VOA/S. Herman)
  • A monument in the DMZ marking the signing of the Armistice 1,000 meters to the north, April 17, 2013. (VOA/S. Herman)
  • Bridge of No Return across the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) in the DMZ where prisoners were exchanged at the end of the Korean War, April 17, 2013. (VOA/S. Herman)
  • Command Post 2 -- known as the loneliest observation post in the world, Korean DMZ, April 17, 2013. (VOA/S. Herman)

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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