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Korea Truce Village At Peace
what might have been - AFP file image of a gate in the Korean border between North and South.
what might have been - AFP file image
by Lee Jong-Heon
Panmunjom, South Korea (UPI) Dec 20, 2006
Just an hour's drive north of Seoul takes you to the world's most heavily fortified Cold War frontier, where South Korean soldiers face off against North Korean troops.

Standing only several paces apart, guards from both sides stare each other down across the military demarcation line that runs through this border village of Panmunjom, where a three-inch-high white stone divider separates the rival Koreas. The soldiers stand poised ready to pull their side arms from their holsters.

Inside the powder-blue U.N. building in the truce village, a boardroom table straddles the border, half in North Korea and half in South Korea.

Dozens of chairs at the "T-2" U.N. building for the Military Armistice Commission have remained empty since Pyongyang boycotted the regular border talks to monitor violations of the truce in March 1991 when a South Korean general was named to lead the U.N. Command delegation, replacing a U.S. officer.

But this table and chairs may be used again to discuss peace building if the ongoing six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program make a breakthrough. Furthermore, this truce village may be transformed into a peace village if North Korea gives up its program.

The United States has recently expressed its willingness to sign a document declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War if the North dismantles its nuclear weapons.

Nuclear negotiators from North Korea and the United States went into a third day of six-nation talks in Beijing on Wednesday aimed at dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear program, which also involve South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. There has been no breakthrough yet.

The United States, representing a 16-nation U.N. Command, is a signatory to the 1953 Korean armistice agreement. The peninsula still technically remains in a state of war as the Korean War ended without a peace treaty. The proposed end to the war is seen as a step toward concluding a peace treaty.

North Korea has long called for the conclusion of a peace treaty with the United States to replace the armistice mechanism, saying it is essential to end the nuclear standoff.

If North Korea and the United States sign a peace treaty, this truce village and the Military Armistice Commission may be abolished, according to South Korean officials.

The border village has been the symbol of the confrontation between the capitalist and communist worlds highlighted by numerous infiltrations and violent confrontations over the decades.

Panmunjom's three U.N. buildings are marked T-1, T-2 and T-3, in which "T" stands for temporary; meaning the state of war has not been terminated since the June 25, 1950, eruption of the Korean War.

On July 27, 1953, the Korean armistice was signed in this truce village, technically ending the three-year Korean War after 1,076 meetings over two years and 19 days, marking the world's longest truce talks.

The armistice, the key legal mechanism that maintains an uneasy peace on the divided peninsula, remains fragile. As the crisis deepens over North Korea's nuclear bomb test, South Korean officials and analysts have voiced fears that a minor incident at the tense border could trigger a chain of events leading to a second war on the peninsula.

The truce village is the only neutral place in the Demilitarized Zone that bisects the peninsula. The 2.5-mile-wide DMZ is a no man's land that spans the peninsula along the line where fighting stopped during the Korean War.

The DMZ was created at the end of the war as a buffer area to keep opposing armies apart, but the 156-mile-long zone has become the world's most heavily militarized spot. The area is still dotted with mines, concrete walls, electric fences, bunkers and other military facilities. Almost two million troops from both sides are deployed on the peninsula, including 30,000 American troops stationed in South Korea.

Panmunjom has also been one of the most popular sites for foreign tourists in search of a unique sightseeing experience.

According to South Korean military officials, some 150,000 sightseers, half of them foreigners, ride up from Seoul every year for a dose of Cold War nostalgia.

"In recent years, an increasing number of tourists, mostly Chinese, are showing up from the North's side (of the truce village) too," a South Korean guard said.

In a symbolic gesture for reconciliation, the two Koreas have opened two corridors in the DMZ for road and rail transport.

Some 270 South Koreans are commuting every day to the North's border city of Kaesong that houses an inter-Korean joint industrial park through the western corridor, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry. Some 160 vehicles, including trucks carrying sand picked up from the North's river, cross the border every day.

Just six miles south of the DMZ, LG Philips LCD, the world's second-largest liquid crystal display maker, has constructed a mammoth electronics-parts complex. Not far from there, the world's biggest English immersion camp has been operated.

"The truce village has been the symbol of confrontations on the Korean peninsula, but with booming inter-Korean exchanges, it would serve as a forefront for inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation," said Oh Nam-du, deputy director of the South Korean Customs, Immigrations and Quarantine office at the western border.

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