When most people think of the Korean Demilitarised Zone the image that most often comes to mind is one of Joint Security Area (JSA), and in particular the three blue and two white buildings therein which straddle the border between North and South Korea (pictured above). The JSA is the only place where visitors from both North and South Korea visit – albeit (with one exception – see below) their respective part of the JSA.
From within the JSA, those visiting from the North can have a close up look into the South while those visiting from the South can have a close up look into the North. It is where North and South Korean military personnel come face to face.
In one small part of the JSA you can actually cross the border, albeit temporarily.
As explained in my review, the Armistice Agreement Signing Hall – Peace Museum
military action or hostilities of the Korean War, with a few notable exceptions came to an end with the signing of an Armistice Agreement on 27 July 1953. Notwithstanding this agreement both countries officially remain at war.
One of the outcomes of the Armistice Agreement was that both governments undertook to continue negotiations with a view to concluding a formal peace agreement that would end the war. Negotiations, such as they are, continue to this day.
To facilitate such negotiations a small area – roughly a circle of radius 400m straddling the border – called the Joint Security Area was set aside as a place where both parties, under the auspices of the Military Armistice Commission, could continue negotiations. The JSA was first utilised in 1953 for the exchange of prisoners of war following the end of hostilities.
Troops (subject to certain limitations in terms of numbers and firearms) from each country were allowed to patrol the JSA and each side was permitted to set up buildings, etc to facilitate diplomatic and military negotiations. Originally there was total freedom of movement of both sides within the JSA.
Following the murder, within the JSA, of two American officers in 1976 – the famous Axe Murder Incident – the JSA was split into two along the actual border line (also called the Military Demarcation Line or DML) and the former freedom of movement within the JSA ceased for both sides. Each side, from that date, was confined to their own side of the border. Picture 2 is a sketch of the JSA post 1976.
Five of the buildings in the JSA – UN Conference Row – the blue and white buildings you can see in my main picture – straddle the border. In the centre blue building, the Military Armistice Conference Room, both sides meet at a table, the centre of which (identified by a row of microphones) marks the actual border between North and South Korea.
The other four buildings in the UN Conference Row have varying uses. If Wikipedia is to believed (and our North Korean guides presented a different view) the white building on the left (looking into South Korea) officially called the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Recreation Room lacks recreation equipment and “North Korean Soldiers would go into the building during MAC Conferences, part the curtains, and make both rude and threatening gestures through the windows. U.S. and ROK troops gave the building the derisive nickname “The Monkey House” because of these antics.”
Visitors are only permitted to enter the central blue conference room (with guides) and this is the only area of the DMZ where we could freely walk around the table between both Koreas without running the extremely high (ok, almost certain!) risk of being shot. Do take my word for that if you visit. No-one, in 60 years, has succeeded in crossing the border in this area unless by prior arrangement!
Tours of the JSA are carefully arranged such that you will not encounter a tour from the South in the blue conference room while you visit from the North. The blue buildings are maintained by South Korea, while the white ones are maintained by the North. When tourists enter the blue conference room they are accompanied by soldiers and guides from the country from whence they came. A soldier or soldiers will stand in front of the door into the other country such that you cannot enter.
Visiting from the North you are permitted to sit down at the table, visiting from the South you are not!
Between these buildings the raised concrete plinth marks the border. You are not permitted to enter this area from either side.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on my visit to Panmunjom (DMZ), North Korea. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Soldiers on the border in the Joint Security Area – or to start this loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – If war resumes leave the area as soon as possible!