Interest high as public tours resume on S. Korea’s side of DMZ village
May 1, 2019
PANMUNJOM, South Korea — Interest was high on both sides of the border as the U.S.-led United Nations Command reopened the southern half of the Joint Security Area for public tours Wednesday after a seven-month delay amid nuclear talks with the North.
The U.N. Command, which oversees the area, has received more than 220 requests for tours since Seoul announced on Monday that they would resume, according to the security battalion’s commander.
“We will be busy fast,” Lt. Col. Sean Morrow told reporters on Wednesday. “Basically, it’s back to normal.”
The U.N. Command suspended the popular tours to the area, which also is known as the truce village of Panmunjom, in October after the two Koreas agreed to demilitarize the buffer zone during their historic summit on April 27, 2018. The resumption was timed to coincide with the summit’s anniversary.
North Korea never stopped tours on its side, with the number of visitors fluctuating between 100 and 900 people a week, Morrow said.
Visitors to both sides on Wednesday waved and took photos of each other, and North Korean soldiers marched down the steps of their main building as Morrow spoke several feet away.
The new arrangements fall short of the ambitious agreement by President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to allow visitors to move freely within the Joint Security Area from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
That plan has been delayed because the three sides have not agreed on a joint code of conduct deemed necessary for security purposes, U.N. Command officials have said.
But the public will have access to more sites than had been previously allowed, including the blue footbridge where Moon and Kim held a private chat and a pine tree that was planted by the two leaders last year.
Morrow, who said the southern side had some 120,000 visitors in 2017, anticipated there will be eight to 12 tours per day.
He also reiterated the U.N. Command’s support for a far-reaching inter-Korean military pact that is part of efforts to improve relations between the two countries, which technically remain at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
Soldiers have removed land mines and weapons from the area, which is the only site in the 155-mile-long, heavily fortified border where both sides come face-to-face.
“What once was a vibe of tension is now a vibe of peace,” Morrow said. “And I think that what you’ll see here is a place that can foster trust building and confidence that hopefully can spread across the Korean Peninsula.”
In a reminder of the danger, however, tours also will include a stop at a memorial for Cpl. Jang Myong-ki, a South Korean soldier who was killed by the North Koreans in 1984 during a clash as a Soviet defector fled across the area to the South.