Panmunjom (South Korea) (AFP) – In the Demilitarized Zone that has divided the two Koreas for decades, the two sides come face to face — along with the contradictory narratives that will underlie a summit at the site this week.
South Korean guards chosen for their height and looks, and sporting aviator sunglasses stand stern and unmoving outside the blue huts of the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, only metres from North Korean positions.
The truce village is a frequent destination for tourists on both sides of the border, and for US presidents seeking to symbolically demonstrate Washington’s commitment to defend Seoul from the nuclear-armed North.
And on Friday North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will walk across the gravel between the huts to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in only the third such encounter since the Korean War.
Seoul and Pyongyang remain technically at war after the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
A US security escort tells visitors on the southern side that the South Korean soldiers “stand face-to-face with the enemies on a daily basis”.
He highlights the 1976 killing of two US soldiers who were “brutally axed to death” with their own implements by North Korean guards when they tried to prune a tree whose leaves were blocking the US-led United Nations forces’ view.
The incident triggered Operation Paul Bunyan, described as the most expensive tree-felling in history.
A total of 813 troops, 23 vehicles, 27 helicopters and a number of B-52 Stratofortress bombers with fighter escorts were deployed to cut down the offending poplar as a US aircraft carrier and its accompanying task force patrolled close offshore, in a monumental display of power.
– ‘Valuable lesson’ –
The inter-Korean summit will be the first to take place south of the border after meetings in Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007, and will be held in the Peace House, a concrete and glass building whose name — along with the nearby Freedom House — is an object of scorn north of the border.
“It may seem like they have achieved freedom and peace,” said Lieutenant Kim of the Korean People’s Army, the North’s military, but he blamed the US for the division of the peninsula.
“This shows the true nature of America,” he told AFP. “It gets in the way of peace.”
The meeting between Moon and Kim comes ahead of one due between the North Korean leader and US President Donald Trump in a whirlwind of diplomacy midwived by the Winter Olympics in the South.
It is a dramatic turnaround after the tensions of last year, but to reach any enduring agreement the two sides will have to overcome decades of enmity and mistrust.
North Korea proclaims itself to have won the 1950-53 conflict, which it calls the Great Fatherland Liberation War.
A large stone plaque on its side of the DMZ commemorates a 2012 visit by Kim, who “gave us a valuable lesson that this is a historic place where the US invaders kneeled before our people to sign their surrender”.
“Our future generations will live in a reunified motherland,” it cites him as declaring.
– ‘Terrified’ –
Inside one of the blue huts that straddle the border, the American security escort warns a group of nervous-looking tourists: “Do not pass behind that soldier because that door unlocks and goes directly to North Korea.”
Those on the far side of the room are effectively standing “in Communist North Korea”, they are told, and a wave of camera flashes go off as they excitedly snap souvenir photos to prove they briefly crossed the line.
The border is penetrable inside the building, where an aged conference table stands over the line, but outside a step from either side across the concrete slabs of the Military Demarcation Line would be considered a serious provocation.
The DMZ has witnessed a number of dramatic moments, most recently a North Korean soldier dashing across the border to defect in November, prompting his comrades to fire at least 40 rounds in an effort to kill him.
The axes from the 1976 incident lie proudly on display in a glass case in one of the buildings in the Northern section of the DMZ.
“Of course we can beat them with our bare hands,” Lieutenant Kim said of the US forces. “They attempted to kill us with their axes but we took them.
“As a soldier, I only think about pushing the US out of the south as soon as possible and unifying our nation.”