Panmunjom, where Korean soldiers and negotiators meet

SEOUL: Among a row of sky-blue huts straddling the border between North and South Korea, soldiers from both sides face off against each other on the world´s last Cold War frontier.


Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone, where officials from North and South Korea will meet Tuesday, is a traditional point of contact on the border but also a physical representation of the 1950-53 Korean War´s enduring effects.

Millions of Koreans died in the conflict, with the armistice signed at Panmunjom leaving the peninsula divided and the two Koreas technically still at war in the absence of a formal peace treaty.

Despite its name, the DMZ separating the two Koreas is one of the world´s most heavily fortified frontiers, brimming with minefields and watchtowers.

Panmunjom is the only place in the DMZ where the two sides come face to face, with the border marked only by a low concrete divider.

It has witnessed a number of dramatic incidents. Most recently, a North Korean soldier dashed across the border in an extremely rare and dramatic defection in November, when his comrades fired at least 40 rounds in an effort to kill him.

There have been previous defections at Panmunjom, most notably in 1984 when a Russian student from Moscow sprinted across the border and triggered a 30-minute gun battle that left four people dead — although he was unhurt.

Another gun battle was recorded in 1967 when a senior journalist from the North´s state-run Korean Central News Agency defected while covering military talks.

And there were fears of a full-scale conflict in 1976, after a group of North Korean troops axed to death two American soldiers who were trimming a nearby tree.

– Direct line –

US presidents visiting South Korea have often gone to DMZ as a symbolic demonstration of Washington´s commitment to defend Seoul.

But bad weather forced Donald Trump to call off a surprise trip there in November — after his office earlier labelled such visits a “cliche”.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un made a rare trip to Panmunjom in 2012, with state media carrying pictures of him looking across the border at the South through a pair of binoculars amid heightened tensions.

Over the years, the site has turned into a major attraction for visiting foreigners.

Tourists to the southern side are given ample warning against actions that could antagonise the North Korean soldiers before they cautiously begin capturing snapshots of the division.

“It´s very upsetting that a country is so divided,” said Julia Ahn, a 24-year-old student from New York, on a trip to Panmunjom. “It´s good information but very hard to swallow.”

Tuesday´s discussions, the first between the Koreas in more than two years, will be held at the Peace House, on the southern side of the neutral area — the North also has a talks venue on its side, Tongilgak.

North and South are so deeply divided that there are no direct telephone communications between them for ordinary citizens — but both buildings are connected to Seoul and Pyongyang so the discussions can be closely monitored by officials in the two capitals.



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