Hanging out at the Koreas’ demilitarised zone

The DMZ, infamously seeded with countless land mines, is the most heavily armed strip of land on Earth.

A South Korean sentry a few metres south of the inter-Korean border known as the DMZ [Andrew Salmon]

Panmunjeom, South Korea Directly north of Seoul, a 40-minute drive up the “Chayuro” (Freedom) expressway, brings you to the joint US-South Korean “Camp Boniface”, sited directly south of the flashpoint frontier that keeps the two Koreas from each other’s throats.

Above its entrance, a sign is emblazoned with the proud boast, “In Front Of Them All.”

But north of this front-line camp – in the very epicentre of the Demilitarised Zone, or DMZ – stands another base.

Here the (unofficial) motto is “Between Them All”, and the permanent inhabitants are not training for Armageddon – in fact, they consider their posting idyllic. They are the soldiers of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, or NNSC, and their home is one of the world’s most iconic yet bizarre locations: the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjeom.

With all the birdsong and nice weather, it's very easy to forget that 50 metres away is a fence, and two kilometres north, you have 13,200 artillery pieces and a forward-deployed army.

by - Berndt Grundevik, Swedish general

“We are probably the only military on the peninsula who doesn’t have an enemy,” said Swiss Colonel Christian Jorgensen, one five Swedes and five Swiss who make up the NNSC. “We do not feel threatened; we have a diplomatic role, we do not feel we are a target.”

That insouciance may surprise some. 

Easy to forget 

After all, the DMZ, infamously seeded with countless landmines, is probably the most heavily armed strip of land on Earth. North Korea bristles with a 1.2 million-man army, nuclear weapons and strategic missiles, while South Korean fields a hi-tech 650,000-strong military, backed up by 28,000 US soldiers.

Global media constantly warn of “rising tensions”, frequently illustrating their reports with photos of Panmunjeom, which, with its pale blue truce huts and tableaux of North and South Korean sentries eyeballing each other, is perhaps Asia’s most photographed flashpoint.

“With all the birdsong and nice weather, it’s very easy to forget that 50 metres away is a fence, and two kilometres north, you have 13,200 artillery pieces and a forward-deployed army,” said Swedish General Berndt Grundevik.

The Swiss-Swedish camp is a series of cosy cottages, set amid bucolic woodland. They have a gym and two well-equipped bars. Sculptures stand in the gardens, and a multi-directional sign announces the distance to Stockholm. The unit has no weapons, and although it has a well-stocked bunker for emergencies, Grundevik admits it has never been used.

“We don’t lock up after dark here,” said Jorgensen – unlike previous postings in Kosovo and Georgia. “We sleep better here than in Seoul. Maybe it’s the better air.”

The NNSC accommodation stands to one side of Panmunjeom proper. The truce village uniquely comprises three huts in which occasional inter-Korean talks are held. Overlooking the huts on both sides of the border – which runs though the middle of the village and across the tables in the huts – are South Korean and North Korean installations. Visiting groups gawp behind the sentries glaring at each other over this last Cold War frontier.

Swiss and Swedish officers stand in a bunker [Andrew Salmon]

Overseeing the armistice

The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the breadth of the peninsula bisected by the four-kilometre-wide DMZ. Both North and South Korea maintain guard posts and patrol inside the DMZ, without crossing the actual border than runs down its centre. Heavy weapons, such as tanks and artillery, are not permitted inside this strip of dangerous yet verdant land; they are, however, dug in on both sides of it – “belly up to the border” in US army parlance.

The NNSC was formed in August 1953 to oversee the armistice. Originally, Swedes and Swiss monitored the southern side, while Czechoslovakians and Poles did the same on the north. After communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, Pyongyang expelled the Czechs and Poles, hence the commission ceased to operate north of the DMZ in 1995.

That left the Swedish and Swiss, stationed in Panmunjeom, which uniquely straddles the border inside the DMZ, overseeing just the southern element of the armistice. They operate in conjunction with the UN Command, the 17-nation coalition that is predominantly South Korean – and US-manned.

The NNSC role is to audit annual South Korea-US military exercises; inspect South Korean positions in the DMZ; and investigate possible armistice violations. They also interview North Koreans who accidentally arrive in South Korea – such as shipwrecked fishermen – before repatriation.

They have no communication with the North Koreans and cannot cross the border. Even in the South, they have minimal authority. They can only write reports, which are filed to the UN Security Council.

A signpost in Panmunjeom gives distances to Stockholm from the Korean DMZ [Andrew Salmon/Al Jazeera]

While the NSCC is “sort of toothless”, it is no rubber stamp, insists Swiss General Urs Gerber. He once disagreed that the annual spring exercises conducted by South Korean and US forces – which Pyongyang fumes are rehearsals for an attack – were strictly defensive or a deterrent.  

Both Gerber and Grundevik said when they advise South Korean commanders to remove facilities or equipment from the DMZ, discussions can get heated, with South Korean officers arguing that nobody oversees North Korea’s positions.

Although they have been doing the job for more than six decades, NSCC personnel still encounter occasional surprises. In October 2013, they investigated a fatal incident after a South Korean attempting to defect to North Korea by swimming at night across the Han River was machine gunned by South Korean troops.

“It came to my full surprise and I speak to many ambassadors, and none of them knew that South Korean soldiers have orders to shoot any person who attempts to defect from their country,” recalled Gerber.

Less than warlike

Gerber said his unit has a different outlook to South Korean and US troops. “We do not feel ‘In front of them all,'” he said. “We have a totally different task.”

North Korea is very unpredictable and we have to be ready to defend our South Korean allies … We are here for the right reasons.

by - US Lieutenant Ron Magtanong

The NSCC’s less-than-warlike attitude contrasts to that prevailing immediately to the south in Camp Boniface, home to a joint American-South Korean UN Security Battalion whose members provide sentries at Panmunjeom.

“We’re ready to fight tonight,” said battalion member Private Yoon. “That’s how we roll.” Members of his unit are all volunteers and are highly trained in close quarter battle, Yoon said.

Yet Yoon and his comrades are armed only with pistols, for heavy weapons are not permitted in Panmunjeom. The deadliest-looking objects in the area are weed-whackers wielded by gardeners. 

Camp Boniface offers a souvenir shop for tourists, offering such kitsch as barbed-wire desk ornaments, and its sport facilities include a baseball diamond and a one-hole golf course.

But Camp Boniface is no joke. An American servicewomen recalled a ball bouncing out of the fenced-in basketball court and detonating a mine. Bunkers are sited among buildings and troops in formation jog around, chanting cadences. The camp’s name commemorates US Captain Arthur Boniface, who was killed here in 1976, when axe-wielding North Korean troops murdered two American soldiers pruning a tree in Panmunjeom.

“From my point of view, it’s dangerous,” said US Lieutenant Ron Magtanong. “North Korea is very unpredictable and we have to be ready to defend our South Korean allies … We are here for the right reasons.”

Those posted to Camp Boniface seem to agree on the importance of their mission. But given the wrathful rhetoric, Cold War tension and occasional deadly incidents that characterise inter-Korean relations, does the NSCC feel they provide value?

“We say, ‘If we have agreement at least on the southern side, that contributes to peace and stability,'” said Grundevik. “Every day nobody is killed by a weapon – that’s a successful day.”

Source: Al Jazeera