With the recent demilitarization of Panmunjeom, the border village between the two Koreas, amid easing tensions on the peninsula, the enclave’s North Korean side has become a tourist spot.
When Kyodo News reporters traveled to the area from Pyongyang this week, North Korean soldiers guarding facilities on the front line of the border were unarmed and a number of visitors were seen gazing at the South Korean side from the three-story-tall Panmun Gak hall, the main North Korean building in the Joint Security Area.
Panmunjeom, located around 170 kilometers from the North Korean capital and about 50 km from the South Korean capital Seoul, has a «peaceful atmosphere,» Kang Myong Son, a 37-year-old North Korean military official, said, adding that the number of tourists from the North Korean side has been increasing.
Inter-Korean relations have markedly improved over the past year amid an atmosphere of rapprochement, leading to the demilitarization of the JSA in recent months based on an agreement reached at a summit between the two Koreas in September.
But joint economic projects between the North and South have not moved forward as the United States has continued calls for maintaining international sanctions on Pyongyang over concerns about a lack of concrete action toward its denuclearization.
Washington and Seoul remain technically at war with Pyongyang as the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a cease-fire.
North Korea and the United States «should establish a new mechanism for peace and safety not only on the Korean Peninsula but in the world,» Kang said, expressing hope that a peace treaty will be forged as soon as possible.
The reporters were allowed to visit Panmunjeom on Monday, about two weeks before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump are scheduled to hold their second summit on Feb. 27-28 in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi.
Panmunjeom, around 150 minutes away by car from the center of Pyongyang, is where the Korean War armistice was signed 66 years ago.
It was militarized following an incident in 1976 in which North Korean guards killed two U.S. officers who were cutting down a poplar tree.
In November 2017, a North Korean soldier defected to the South by crossing the then heavily armed land border within the JSA.
The symbol of conflict between Pyongyang and Seoul, however, has turned into one of cooperation since the first inter-Korean summit in 11 years took place in April 2018 at the Peace House, a facility controlled by the South in Panmunjeom.
At that time, Kim became the first North Korean leader to cross the border with the South since the Korean War. In what was billed by Seoul as a gesture of peace and prosperity, Kim and Moon jointly planted a commemorative pine tree around the Military Demarcation Line.
Panmunjeom was the only place along the border where troops of the North and South directly faced each other, but at the September summit in Pyongyang, the two Koreas agreed to remove guns and guard posts from the truce village. The demilitarization was completed in late October.
«That is the tree» that Kim and Moon planted together, Kang said with a smile.
Amid the thaw in inter-Korean ties, more tourists have visited Panmunjeom from the North Korean side recently. Up to 2,000 people, including foreigners from China, entered the village a day last year, according to Kang.
On Sunday, seven Japanese youths visited Panmunjeom from the North Korean side, he said, although the Japanese government has requested that its citizens refrain from traveling to North Korea.
Near the entrance of the truce village, there is a souvenir shop selling T-shits and caps as well as North Korean snacks and oil paintings.
«I am a military official but I don’t carry arms,» Kang said, suggesting strains between the two Koreas have been easing. «Even if I don’t explain, I think you can understand.»
He said he believes people from North and South Korea will be able to move freely over the border in the near future.
In December, the two Koreas held a groundbreaking ceremony in the North Korean city of Kaesong near the border with the South for a project to connect railways and roads across the border, in a move to accelerate economic cooperation.
But it is uncertain when the work will start, given that the United States has been unwilling to lift economic sanctions imposed in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development programs, pending its denuclearization.
«The construction has not proceeded because someone has always told us that someone has not given approval,» an official from Kaesong told Kyodo News.
North Korean state-run media have yet to report that Kim and Trump will meet again later this month.
At their historic first summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018, Kim and Trump agreed that the United States would provide security guarantees to North Korea in return for «complete denuclearization» of the Korean Peninsula.
Since then, denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington have been at a stalemate against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s skepticism about whether North Korea really intends to abandon all its nuclear weapons.
In the Korean War, U.S.-led multinational forces fought alongside South Korea against the North, backed by China and the Soviet Union. Hostilities ceased with an armistice agreement signed in July 1953 by the U.N. Command, North Korea’s military and Chinese armed forces.
[Korea Summit Press Pool]
All — Kyodo News+