SEOUL - Next week’s inter-Korean summit will take place in the uninhabited village of Panmunjom, inside the tense and highly fortified demilitarized zone that separates the communist North and the democratic South. This historic site, where the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953, has since become a key point of contact for cross border communication and a major tourist destination.
The Panmunjom meeting site, located on the border between North and South Korea, was first established in 1951 to negotiate a truce to end the Korean War. The talks and the fighting went on for three more years before an armistice was signed.
Symbol of division
Today Panmunjom has come to symbolize the ongoing division of the Korean Peninsula. It is the only site along the heavily fortified 250-kilometer long demilitarized zone border where soldiers from both the North and South are in close proximity to each other.
No civilians live in the cluster of blue huts within the Joint Security Area, which is controlled by both North Korea and the United Nations Command established during the Korean War.
“The whole job of the joint security battalion here, the R.O.K. [Republic of Korea] soldiers and the U.S. soldiers that you see out here today is to provide security to enable dialogue between the two [sides],” said J. Elise Van Pool, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forces Korea during a media tour on Wednesday.
Panmunjom is located 50 kilometers north of Seoul, and has been the site of numerous cross border talks, including recent planning sessions for the upcoming inter-Korean summit. The conference rooms are reportedly equipped with closed circuits cameras so that officials in Seoul and Pyongyang can monitor meetings.
The April 27 meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will take place at the Peace House conference building on the South Korean side of Panmunjom. It will be the first time a North Korean leader has visited South Korea and the first inter-Korean summit in over a decade.
“They are still working out the series of events, so how the two leaders will egress into the building, and of course they will have staffers who come with them. So that is still all being negotiated,” said the USFK spokeswoman.
The rapid diplomatic progress this year that has led to the inter-Korean summit, and the U.S.-North Korea summit expected to be held in late May or early June, came from the North Korean leader’s expressed willingness to engage in denuclearization talks. Kim’s turn toward diplomacy has reduced, for now, the potential for conflict over the North’s accelerated efforts last year to develop an operational nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the U.S. mainland.
In addition to addressing denuclearization issues, South Korean officials said this week that Moon and Kim would discuss formally replacing the Korean War armistice with a formal peace treaty that would normalize relations and increase security cooperation.
While the border region is controlled to maintain a tense peace, there have been isolated incidents of conflict and violence over the years.
In November, security cameras in the DMZ recorded the North Korean military shooting one of its own soldiers, as he raced across the border to defect to the South.
One of the most infamous incidents occurred in 1976 when axe wielding North Korean soldiers killed two U.S. Army officers who were part of a work crew cutting down a tree that partially blocked the view of U.N. observers.
South Korea also discovered four tunnels being dug across the DMZ that had the capacity to secretly transport as many as 2,000 North Korean troops for a potential surprise invasion. The tunnels have been disabled and are now tourist attractions. Pyongyang denied the tunnels where made for military use, instead saying they were for coal mining.
The Joint Security Area is also a major tourist destination where over 100,000 people visited from the South in 2017, and nearly 30,000 visited the site from the North.
One of the main attractions is, what is often called the “propaganda village” on the North side of the DMZ, a group of brightly colored buildings that South Korea says is uninhabited, and was built to produce the illusion of prosperity in the impoverished North.
On the South Korean side of the DMZ is the village of Daeseong-Dong, a farming community where residents are exempt from taxes to encourage them to stay and populate this potentially dangerous border region that would become a battleground if war were to ever break out again.
Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.