The surreal Korean border town a US soldier crossed into, sparking an international incident

A series of low buildings and shadowy soldiers dot the landscape of the DMZ (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File) (Susan Walsh/)

Shacks with blue roofs, a raised concrete slab and a bit of raked gravel are all that separate the two rival Koreas in panmunjoma rare close contact point along the world’s most heavily armed border.

People have crossed that fine line, but only in very special circumstances, passing between two nations that are technically still at war.

Former US President donald trump and the North Korean leader kim jong un they did it. The former president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, crossed the border hand in hand with Kim. In 2017, a defecting North Korean soldier stumbled nearby, under heavy fire, in a mad dash for cover.

File photo of the then US President Donald Trump with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Panmunjom (REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque)
Archive photo of the then US President Donald Trump with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Panmunjom (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque) (Kevin Lamarque/)

And this week, an American soldier facing possible military discipline crossed the linesparking an international incident that could worsen already shaky relations on the Korean peninsula, where North Korea has conducted dozens of missile tests this year as it works to advance a nuclear program aimed at targeting the continental United States.

Great part of Demilitarized Zone 4 kilometers wide is desert, protected by mines, barbed wire fences, tank traps and combat troops on both sides. It is jointly overseen by the US-led UN Command and North Korea.

But Panmunjom, a once obscure farming town within the DMZ now home to a “Joint Security Area,” is different.. It is a tourist site, although one of the most surreal in the world.

Barricades are put up near the Unification Bridge, which leads to Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon) (Ahn Young-joon/)

Seven decades of division since the end of the Korean War are made palpable by South Korean soldiers standing guard, looking across the border. North Korean soldiers are there too, but less visible on most days.

The Korean peninsula was divided at the end of World War II into a Soviet-controlled north and a US-backed south. It was at Panmunjom that US and North Korean forces negotiated and eventually signed the 1953 truce. which ended the Korean War and created the DMZ. There has never been a formal peace treaty.

Occasionally, a carnival atmosphere can take hold in the area around Panmunjom, with souvenir shops, fast food restaurants and throngs of tourists, though North Korea has been closed to tourism due to the pandemic since early 2020. The South Korean side has an amusement park not far from the town.and used to have a Popeyes chicken store.

Trips to the South Side reportedly drew a few 100,000 visitors a year before the pandemic, when South Korea restricted gatherings to curb the spread of COVID-19. Touring fully resumed last year.

South Korean soldiers look at the North Korean side through binoculars (AP Photo/Lee ​​Jin-man, file) (Lee Jin-man/)

The area too It’s a throwback to the Cold War., a time of barely contained simmering hostility between nuclear-armed rivals. Has been ax murders, US bomber overflights and desperate desertions along the border. US presidents and top officials regularly travel to the south side of the DMZ to take photos.

The resort area is a short drive from Seoul, which is within artillery range of an estimated 70% of the 1.2 million North Korean troops stationed along the border.

There are occasional verbal exchanges between the US soldiers and their often serious North Korean counterparts at the Demarcation Line in the village.

It’s a thrill, perhaps, for tourists, but a dangerous proposition for soldiers standing watch, often just meters (feet) away.

Often months and years go by without incident, but when something does happen, it can be violent.

In 1976, North Korean soldiers Two US Army officers hacked to deathand the United States responded by flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers into the DMZ in an attempt to intimidate the North.

Visitors pass through a wire fence decorated with ribbons written with messages wishing for the reunification of the two Koreas (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon) (Ahn Young-joon/)

In 1984, North Korean and UN commando soldiers exchanged fire when a Soviet citizen defected by running to the south side. Three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldier were killed.

In 2017, when a fleeing North Korean soldier crashed his jeep and then sped across the border, North Korean soldiers fired pistols and rifles before southern soldiers could drag the wounded soldier to safety. The South Korean soldiers did not return fire.

North Koreans fleeing to the South — some 30,000 since the end of the Korean War — have mainly used the more porous border between the North and China.

In 2019, during a period of unprecedented diplomacy between North Korea and the United States and South Korea, Trump and Kim shook hands at the border. Trump stepped over the concrete slab, becoming the first US president to set foot on North Korean territory.

On Tuesday, Pvt. Travis King, 23, became the first known American detained in the North in nearly five years, after crossing the border at Panmunjom.

King, who had served nearly two months in a South Korean prison, had been detained on assault charges and was scheduled to be sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, on Monday, where he could have faced further military disciplinary action and discharge from service. But authorities say that instead of getting on the plane, he left the airport and then joined a tour of Panmunjom.

(With information from AP)

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