PANMUNJOM, Korea – This week’s summit between the leaders of North and South Korea will occur at a border littered with mines and laced with barbed wire, a Cold War reminder of a division that dates to the end of World War II.
The talks will take place at Panmunjom, a village inside the 248-kilometer (154-mile) -long Demilitarized Zone that was created at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War. Bloodshed and gunfire have occasionally occurred here, but it’s also been a venue for numerous talks.
During a recent media tour, in a typical Panmunjom scene, nine tall South Korean and U.S. soldiers, all wearing mirrored sunglasses, stood rigidly and gazed toward the North, while several helmeted North Korean soldiers marched only several meters (feet) away from them.
On the southern side of the village, renovation work was underway at the South Korean-controlled Peace House, where North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in will meet on Friday in the rivals’ third-ever summit.
Several things to know about Panmunjom:
Once an obscure farming village, Panmunjom was where the armistice was signed to end the Korean War. The armistice between the American-led U.N. Command on one side and North Korea and China on the other has yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war.
No civilians live at Panmunjom, and the area is overseen by the U.N. Command and North Korea.
At the center of the oval-shaped village is a cluster of three blue huts used as sites for talks on monitoring the armistice and inter-Korean issues. The huts straddle concrete slabs that form a military demarcation line inside the 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) -wide DMZ. On one side of that line is North Korea; on the other is the South.
Tourists visiting the area can enter one of the huts after soldiers are deployed as a security measure. North Korea’s military lets its own visitors enter the hut as well.
In an unusual feature of the DMZ, in that hut, visitors from both sides are allowed to step across the borderline and be technically in the other country’s territory.
The most famous incident at Panmunjom happened in 1976, when ax-wielding North Korean soldiers killed two American officers during a fight over U.S. efforts to trim a poplar tree.
Infuriated, Washington flew nuclear-capable B-52 bombers toward the DMZ to intimidate North Korea. A relative calm was restored after then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of Kim Jong Un, expressed regret over the killing.
In 1984, a Soviet tour guide sprinted to the southern part of the village, triggering gunfire between North Korea and U.N. Command soldiers. The shootout killed three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldier.
In November 2017, North Korean soldiers fired 40 rounds as one of their colleagues raced toward freedom. The soldier was hit five times before he was found beneath a pile of leaves on the southern side of Panmunjom. He survived and is now in South Korea.
VENUE FOR TALKS
Panmunjom — 52 kilometers (32 miles) north of Seoul and 147 kilometers (91 miles) south of Pyongyang — is a popular place for meetings.
During the Korean War, there were a total of 765 rounds of talks at Panmunjom meant to end the fighting. After the war’s end, more than 830 rounds of talks have been held at various Panmunjom facilities among the two Koreas and among the North’s military and the U.N. Command.
Before Friday’s summit, the most recent high-profile talks in Panmunjom were in August 2015, when top negotiators from the Koreas met for nearly 40 hours and reached a deal that allowed them to pull back from a military standoff triggered by a land mine explosion that maimed two South Korean soldiers.
The Peace House, the venue for the summit, is just south of the blue huts. To come to this building, Kim Jong Un must cross the borderline, in what would make him the first North Korean leader to be in the southern part of the peninsula since the war’s end.
Panmunjom has drawn many high-profile visitors.
—In March 2012, Kim Jong Un came down to Panmunjom and met front-line North Korean troops in his first known visit to the area since taking power in late 2011. He gave the troops rifles and machine guns as souvenirs and ordered them to maintain “maximum alertness,” according to state media.
—In 1993, President Bill Clinton visited Panmunjom when the North Korean nuclear crisis first flared. Days before Kim’s Panmunjom visit in 2012, President Barack Obama visited a front-line U.S. military camp just south of the DMZ and told American troops they are protectors of “freedom’s frontier.”
—In 1998, Chung Ju-yung, the founder of the Hyundai Group conglomerate, accompanied 1,001 cattle into the North via Panmunjom on two occasions as part of a gift that helped his company later launch a tourism project in the North.