South Korea to revamp DMZ towers

This is one of four new guard posts built last year on the North Korea side of the Demilitarized Zone, which replaced older and less-impressive buildings. Renovations are now under way on the South Korea side of the Joint Security Area on three guard posts and two checkpoint buildings.


By JON RABIROFF | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 22, 2009

DEMILITARIZED ZONE, Korea — You might call it a case of keeping up with the Joneses, or in this case the Kims.

Work is under way on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone to renovate three guard posts and two checkpoint buildings into bigger, more modern structures.

The construction comes a year after North Korea finished work on the replacement of four guard posts on its side of the DMZ, and a decade after the two sides engaged in a tit-for-tat battle to see who could build the more impressive reception centers in the Joint Security Area — a period remembered as “the skyscraper wars.”

Welcome to the DMZ, where size matters.

Lt. Col. John Rhodes, commander of the United Nations Command Security Battalion — Joint Security Area, said the renovated buildings on the south side of the Military Demarcation Line will have new safety and convenience features like blast-resistant glass, thicker walls and running water.

“Renovating those guard posts was long overdue,” he said, adding that the last time work was done on them was 1983. “You can only live in house so long until you have to do something significant.”

Rhodes said the work was not necessarily being done in response to the more impressive guard towers that went up last year on the North’s side of the JSA, and dismissed the suggestion that the two sides were once again engaged in a game of “Can You Top This?” reminiscent of the late 1990s.

It was in 1998 that the Freedom House — an unimpressive structure originally built in 1965 on the South’s side of the JSA — was rebuilt. The new, futuristic Freedom House just happened to be taller than the two-story Panmungak, North Korea’s main building that sits directly across the JSA.

The following year, the North Koreans added a third story to the Panmungak, making it taller than the Freedom House.

JSA security escorts routinely make light of the construction battle in the speech they give to tourists who visit the JSA.

“There’s usually something behind everything they do,” Rhodes said, referring to the North Koreans.

However, he said he does not believe the guard posts on the North’s side of the JSA were replaced for any nefarious reasons or tactical advantages. The old North Korean guard posts were also in disrepair, he said.

Rhodes said he doubts the construction under way on the South’s side of the JSA will prompt any more construction on the North’s.

“The [Republic of Korea] government took great care to build those structures not to be provocative in any way to the [Korean People’s Army] on the North Korean side,” he said.