By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – The “peace village” of Panmunjom, with its cluster of distinctive bright blue buildings and chequered history of defections, tension and murder, is an apt choice for the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in will greet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday not far from the building where the armistice that halted the Korean War was signed in 1953, before talks begin in a nearby hall.
“Panmunjom is an emblem of the national division,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“It’s significant that the two leaders will hold a summit where the armistice was concluded, to turn the decades-long order of armistice into that of peace.”
Panmunjom has seen a spate of dramatic diplomatic and military incidents over the years, as well as dozens of rounds of government, military and humanitarian talks since 1971, when the two Koreas opened their first hotline and liaison offices.
Most infamously, axe-wielding North Korean soldiers in the Joint Security Area in 1976 murdered two American soldiers who were cutting down a poplar tree to secure a clear view.
As a conscript in the South’s special forces, Moon was part of the joint mission with the United States to remove the tree in a show of force three days after the attack, though he was not on the scene.
“For the first time since the Korean War, the DEFCON alert system was heightened to a quasi-state of war,” Moon wrote in his 2011 memoir.
“Fortunately the operation was accomplished safely as North Korea didn’t respond to our tree-cutting work, and all of us were given a piece of wood as a badge, for overcoming a national crisis.”
On Friday, Moon and Kim will plant a pine tree on the military demarcation line (MDL) using soil and water from both countries to symbolize “peace and prosperity,” Moon’s chief of staff, Im Jong-seok, said on Thursday.
Located 60km (37 miles) from Seoul and 210km (130 miles) from Pyongyang, the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjom is an 800-metre-wide and 400-metre-long zone.
On each side of the MDL, the two Koreas have their own liaison offices and conference halls, including the South’s Peace House where Moon and Kim will hold talks.
Under a separate 1953 deal, the United Nations Command and the North Korean military are allowed to dispatch no more than 35 troops to the JSA, and each of them can only possess one pistol or non-automatic rifle.
North and South Korea line the demilitarized zone, a 2km-wide buffer on each side of the MDL with razor wire, heavy armaments and tank traps.
Vast swaths of the area has been no man’s land for more than 60 years, but part of it offers an eerie mix of military installations and tourist attractions.
Visitors can gawk at bullet holes marking the site where a North Korean soldier staged a dramatic defection in Panmunjom in November, under fire from his former comrades.
According to the U.N. command, more than 105,000 tourists visited the JSA from the South in 2017, while nearly 30,000 visited from the North.
Moon and Kim are expected to discuss a peace regime to replace the armistice during the summit, which would include an end to hostilities along the border, according to Moon’s national security advisor.
The two Koreas have agreed to cease hostilities in many agreements since 1992, only to see one side or another restart antagonisms as relations deteriorated over the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
On Monday, the South halted propaganda broadcasts it blares across the border in a bid to set a positive tone ahead of the summit.
The broadcasts chiefly consist of K-pop music, defector interviews and radio shows lampooning North Korean leaders, targeting North Korean soldiers and residents in the border areas.
Many defectors, including the soldier who fled via the JSA in November, have said the broadcasts helped them better understand the South and decide to escape.
The North’s border broadcasts have “notably” died down since the South went off the air but it was difficult to know if it was intentional, a South Korean military official said.
“Demilitarising” the 250km-long DMZ could also mean the removal of guard posts and landmines.
Seoul officials estimate the North operates about 160 guard posts, and the South has 60.
A senior defense ministry official said a joint operation is “not impossible” as the two militaries worked together to withdraw some guard posts in the early 2000s.
“If we can discuss that, it’s going to be a meaningful first step” to demilitarize the zone, the official told reporters.
The DMZ is also littered with landmines planted over the decades – as many as 970,000 in the southern part of the DMZ alone, according to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, a Geneva-based civic group.
Reducing the military presence along the border is a key part of South Korea’s plan to reduce tensions and eventually ink a peace deal with the North, Moon Chung-in, a special advisor to Moon for foreign affairs and security, said on Thursday.
“What President Moon has in mind is how to demilitarize the demilitarized zone. Because now we have a demilitarized zone that is heavily militarized. It’s nonsensical.”
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Ju-min Park, Josh Smith and Christine Kim; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)