US-led UN Command, Koreas pull firearms and military posts from truce village
SEOUL, South Korea – Less than a year ago, North Korean soldiers fired at a defector fleeing to the South across the border in the truce village of Panmunjom.
On Thursday, the two Koreas and the U.S.-led United Nations Command announced the completion of the withdrawal of firearms and military posts from the area as part of an inter-Korean agreement aimed at reducing hostilities.
The disarmament of Panmunjom underscored the fast pace at which the two Koreas are moving to improve relations despite slow progress in nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
It was the first step in fulfilling the far-reaching agreement, which also calls for a no-fly zone and a halt to military drills near the heavily fortified border that has bisected the peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War.
Military officials from all sides finished their work at 1 p.m. Thursday, according to a statement by the defense ministry in Seoul. It said they’ll spend the next two days verifying the disarmament measures.
Meanwhile, North and South Korea will each station 35 unarmed guards in the area, in line with the military pact reached last month as part of the third summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The UNC — which is led by Gen. Vincent Brooks, who also is the commander of U.S. Forces Korea — signed off on the decision during trilateral talks on Monday. It has left communication on the issue to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area, is marked by the blue conference buildings that straddle the border and was the site of the signing of the 1953 armistice that ended the war instead of a peace treaty.
It’s the only part where troops from each side face each other in the Demilitarized Zone, a 2.5-mile wide, 155-mile long buffer zone that divides the peninsula.
Dignitaries including Vice President Mike Pence visited the area last year in a show of resolve as tensions rose with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
The JSA is also a popular tourist destination and the military agreement called for visitors to be allowed in the area with “freedom of movement” from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Currently, tours follow strict rules and are only permitted to enter certain areas, including the conference room where the armistice was signed.
The area also has been a focal point for violence, including a 1976 attack by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers who killed two American soldiers trying to trim a poplar tree.
Most recently, a North Korean soldier was wounded when he fled to the South Korean side under heavy gunfire from his former comrades on Nov. 13. The dramatic escape was captured by surveillance cameras.
The military pact also calls for the three parties to “withdraw unnecessary surveillance equipment from the Joint Security Area,” but that was not mentioned in Thursday’s brief statement.
“South and North Korean military authorities and the UNC will continue joint efforts to ensure that they are able to normally implement the demilitarization of the Panmunjom Joint Security Area,” the ministry said.
The sides also have finished a mine-clearance operation in the area, which yielded a dog tag and remains believed to belong to South Korean soldiers killed in the war.
Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.