It’s an eighty-minute ride from Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea. Often called the “village of peace”, Panmunjeom is where the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement that paused the Korean War was signed. It is now in an electric fence and guarded by heavily armed soldiers.
After the Armistice Agreement was signed, construction began in September 1953 on a new site located approximately one kilometer east of the village; this is the Joint Security Area and all meetings between North Korea and the United Nations Command or South Korea have taken place here since its completion. To avoid invasion from either of the newly formed countries, they decided to leave a two kilometer-wide land free of military activities on either side. This land was given the name Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). But despite its name, it is the most heavily militarised border in the world.
The neutrality of this zone was – and still is – supervised by US and UN forces on the South Korean side, forming what they called the Joint Security Area (JSA) at DMZ border.
JSA is the furthest point tourists who want to learn about the Korean War can visit and with military guides. From this point, one can see the North Korean hills in a distance and the DMZ itself near the Bridge of No Return. I visited this place together with several other journalists. We were in Seoul for a one-week media conference, which attracted journalists from various parts of the world.
JSA is a wetland, and it reminded me of the Akagera Savannah back home. The DMZ is recognised as one of the best preserved areas of temperate climate in the world, and has become an inadvertent nature reserve. Panmungeom River also flows through this area. But our guide won’t allow us to take any pictures until we are near the border with North Korea, a point from where the North Korean flag can be seen a couple of kilometers away on a 150 blue-sky pylon.
Demeo says a heavily armed force has to always guard this area because of “North Korea’s invasions of the DMZ, which have always ended in bloody incidents”.
For instance, Dameo says, in 1984, a Russian defector from North Korea managed to seek asylum in the JSA. Pursuing him, 17 soldiers from North Korea violated the DMZ and killed one UN soldier on guard. But the fire exchange also saw three North Korean soldiers killed.
The Bridge of No Return on the Panmunjeom River was also named so in reference to a number of South Korean prisoners who were returned by the North after the Korean War. The Bridge, which former American President Bill Clinton crossed by foot in 1993, is now closed.
“If you cross it you may not return,” Demeo told us when our bus parked in front of the bridge.
The JSA is not here just to guard this place. They also supervise the peace talks between the two sister countries while also managing the buildings that host delegates during the talks.
There are two buildings in the JSA; on one hill, South Korea has constructed a two storey building dubbed the Freedom House which, according to JSA officials, is a symbol of hope that the two countries will one day reunite into one peaceful nation.
In the opposite side on another hill, Panmungak is also a two storey house that was constructed by North Korea. The two houses also serve as watch points for the two countries’ respective delegates during talks.