SEOUL – Straddling the world’s most heavily fortified border, the Korean truce village of Panmunjom is a potential flashpoint where North Korean soldiers hacked to death two U.S. officers at the height of the Cold War.
It’s also where the rival Koreas have held rare high-profile talks, and top U.S. officials have visited to demonstrate the U.S.’s commitment to defending South Korea.
A look at Panmunjom, a day after South Korea’s new liberal president offered talks with North Korea at the village in what would be the Koreas’ first face-to-face meeting since late 2015.
FARMING VILLAGE TO ARMISTICE SITE
Panmunjom, once an obscure farming village, is where an armistice was signed to pause the 1950-53 Korean War, with North Korea and China on one side and the U.S.-led U.N. Command on the other.
No civilians live there, and a cluster of blue huts form a Joint Security Area overseen by North Korea and the U.N. Command.
It’s located in the 248-kilometer (154-mile) -long Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that forms the de facto Korean border. The DMZ is guarded on both sides by hundreds of thousands of combat-ready troops, razor-wire fences and tank traps. More than a million mines are believed to be buried inside it.
At Panmunjom, South Korean troops wearing aviator sunglasses stand in taekwondo poses with their legs apart, arms bent and fists clenched. North Korean soldiers use binoculars to monitor the South. The soldiers are often only several yards (several meters) from each other.
These days, it’s also a popular tourist spot drawing visitors on both sides. Tourists from the South are often told by their guides to be extremely careful about what gestures they make so as not to antagonize the nearby North Korean soldiers.
The 1953 armistice has yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula technically in a state of war. About 28,500 U.S. troops are deployed in South Korea.
In August 1976, two U.S. army officers were killed by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers. The U.S. officers had been sent out to trim a 40-foot (12-meter) tree that obstructed the view from a checkpoint. The attack prompted Washington to fly nuclear-capable B-52 bombers toward the DMZ to intimidate North Korea.
In 1984, North Korean and U.N. Command soldiers traded gunfire after a Soviet citizen defected by sprinting to the South Korean sector of the truce village. The incident left three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldier dead.
In 1996, North Korea sent hundreds of armed troops into Panmunjom after declaring the armistice a “useless piece of paper.” South Korea boosted its surveillance to its highest level in 15 years, and the North Korean troops later withdrew.
The rival Koreas have had similar violent confrontations along other parts of the DMZ in the past. No deadly clashes have occurred in recent years, but a 2015 land mine blast that maimed two South Korean soldiers pushed the Koreas to the brink of an armed conflict. South Korea blames North Korea for the explosion.
U.S. presidents and other top officials have often traveled to Panmunjom and other areas of the DMZ at times of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula. They have peered through binoculars across the border and vowed to boost the U.S. military alliance with South Korea.
In 1993, then President Bill Clinton visited Panmunjom when the North Korean nuclear crisis first flared. In 2002, President George W. Bush visited the DMZ a few weeks after he labeled North Korea part of an “axis of evil.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Panmunjom in July 2010, four months after the sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea killed 46 sailors. North Korea has denied responsibility.
In 2012, ahead of a planned North Korean long-range rocket launch, President Barack Obama visited a frontline U.S. military camp just south of the DMZ and told U.S. troops they are protectors of “freedom’s frontier.” Obama’s trip came days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited Panmunjom.
In March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson began a visit to South Korea by touring Panmunjom. Hours later, in Seoul, he declared that all options, including pre-emptive military action, were on the table regarding North Korea.
In April, Vice President Mike Pence visited Panmunjom and later warned North Korea not to test the U.S.’s resolve and military power.
SITE FOR RARE TALKS
Military officials from North Korea and the U.N. Command used to meet irregularly at Panmunjom to oversee the armistice. In recent years, it has been used for talks between the two Koreas.
South Korean President Moon has proposed that an initial round of talks on easing cross-border tensions be held Friday in a North Korean building in the northern part of the village, followed by a second round on Aug. 1 in a South Korean facility in the southern portion to discuss reunions of families separated by the Korean War.
The most recent high-profile meeting in Panmunjom was in August 2015, when negotiators for the rivals met for nearly 40 hours and reached a deal that allowed them to pull back from a military standoff triggered by the land mine explosion. Animosities flared again after North Korea conducted a fourth nuclear test in January 2016.
Panmunjom has also been used to arrange civilian exchanges and humanitarian programs, such as temporarily family reunions.