Few Changes in Demilitarized Zone
Few Changes in Demilitarized Zone
Aug. 14, 2000
PANMUNJOM, South Korea (AP) _ A glossy book in a gift shop at a U.S. military base just south of the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea carries a chapter title: ``A New Era of Reconciliation.''
But there's no mention of an inter-Korean summit in June, the reopening of border liaison offices on Monday, plans for temporary reunions of separated families Tuesday and other recent gestures of friendship between once-bitter enemies.
Instead, the chapter dwells on a round of family reunions in 1985, meetings of the prime ministers of both Koreas in 1992 and other events a decade ago that were soon eclipsed by antagonism.
The outdated book for tourists bused in from Seoul captures the museum-like aura of the truce village of Panmunjom on the heavily fortified border, which seems out of tune with the swift changes afoot on the Korean peninsula.
Both sides remain wary of one another, but ties between the democratic South and communist North have warmed more in the last two months than in the half-century since they went to war.
Negotiators from Seoul will head to Pyongyang at the end of the month to discuss peacemaking measures. There are plans to reconnect a railroad that cuts across the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.
And the two sides held a ceremony Monday to reopen liaison offices closed four years ago in Panmunjom, 35 miles north of Seoul. ``This shows that the will of South and North Korea to faithfully implement their summit agreement is firm,'' said South Korean Unification Minister Park Jae-kyu.
But little has changed along the buffer zone, a reminder of the hostility that has long infused the relationship between the Koreas since they were divided at the end of World War II.
Heavily armed South Korean soldiers, backed by U.S. troops, man guardposts every 100 or 200 yards along fences topped with coils of barbed wire.
Triangular red signs warn of minefields, which sometimes have to be resown when rains wash away the explosives during the monsoon season in July and August.
Anti-tank barriers squat alongside roads, a defensive measure in the event of a North Korean attack. Stilts prop up the barriers over or beside roads, and can be detonated so that the huge slabs of concrete collapse and block the paths.
All this is visible to tourists who pay $48 to tour Panmunjom, where border talks are sometimes held, and get a taste of one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.
It's an easy sell: many tourists get a faint thrill from watching North Korean guards on the other side of the Military Demarcation Line scrutinize them with binoculars. For most, it's the closest they'll get to one of the most mysterious countries in the world.
South Korean guards wearing sunglasses stand like statues, sweat dripping off their clenched fists, in an aggressive pose inspired by the Korean martial art, tae kwon do.
Panmunjom is a history lesson in the brutality and animosity that have shaped inter-Korean ties. In August 1976, North Korean soldiers beat to death two U.S. Army officers trimming a tree in the DMZ. In 1984, a Russian defector sprinted across the border, prompting a shootout that left one South Korean and three North Korean guards dead.
Matching the spirit of rapprochement, North Korea has stopped broadcasting anti-South propaganda along the border, although patriotic music still wafts across on the wind.
But old propaganda signs that seem less relevant than ever are still visible on the hills. ``Self-reliance is our way of life,'' reads one, an irony considering that Pyongyang is dependent for survival on outside food aid.
``It kind of looks like the Hollywood sign in California,'' Spc. Julio Fortis of Puerto Rico said while guiding a group of visitors around Panmunjom this week.
Another tourist-pleaser is the 600-pound North Korean flag that flies from a 528-foot pole in the North's virtually uninhabited village of Kijong-dong, which is visible across the border.
The giant flag is so heavy that it often lies limp at its mast, waiting for a wind strong enough to carry it.
While the tourist tours follow the same format they always have, comments on the trip in the guest book at the gift shop vary wildly.
``Ironical Tragedy Situation,'' wrote a concerned Japanese visitor. ``Freakin' weather,'' complained a New Zealander. ``Mas cerveza'' (more beer), scrawled a thirsty Venezuelan. ``Shoot 'em in the face,'' said an Orlando, Fla. native.
A British embassy worker from Seoul thought the tour had a lot to offer.
``Cute guys in uniform,'' she wrote, ``what more could a girl ask for?''