NATIONAL

Hopes high for free access to ‘scariest place on Earth’

By Yeo Jun-suk
  • Published : Oct 29, 2018 - 18:27
  • Updated : Oct 29, 2018 - 18:27

With the two Koreas withdrawing firearms and soldiers from guard posts within a jointly controlled area inside the heavily fortified border region, the focus is now on when and how security guards and civilian visitors will be allowed to travel freely inside the restricted area.

The United Nations Command announced Monday that the demilitarization of the Joint Security Area was complete after the US-led organization confirmed the process along with the militaries of South Korea and North Korea.

The two Koreas and the UN Command conducted the two-day verification following an announcement Thursday by the Ministry of National Defense that the two Koreas had removed weapons from 11 guard posts inside the JSA and reduced the number of security personnel to 35 on each side.

“Professionalism and cooperation were displayed by all parties during the demilitarization and verification phase at the JSA,” UNC Commander Gen. Vincent K. Brooks said. “UNC will continue to work tri-laterally and closely (with the two Koreas) to advance the implementation.”

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The UNC said the measure will lay the foundation for implementing the comprehensive military agreement signed between the two Koreas last month. The pact includes a plan to establish a massive buffer zone and a no-fly zone at a cross-border region. Those zones will be in place Thursday.

While previous restrictions on JSA security missions and tourism programs remain intact, the three militaries will soon figure out a way to allow free access to what former US President Bill Clinton once described as “the scariest place on Earth.”

Under the current UNC rules, going to the North’s side of the JSA is strictly prohibited. Civilian trips there are restricted as well. Prospective visitors must fill out request forms and undergo screening.

“The procedure for civilian visits to the JSA is going to be the same as before until a new guideline is published,” an official from the UN Command said on condition of anonymity, citing office rules.

“While JSA tour is now put on hold (due to the demilitarization process), there will be another trilateral consultation between the two Koreas and the UN Command to discuss how much access will be granted to the outside visitors.”

Since the two Koreas’ defense chiefs agreed to disarm the JSA after the inter-Korean summit last month, the two sides have taken a series of measures to transform “the scariest place on Earth” into a symbol of reconciliation between the two Koreas. 

The two Koreas removed land mines scattered near the JSA from Oct. 1-20. Days after the removal operation was complete, firearms and soldiers were withdrawn from the nine guard posts that had monitored each other’s activities for surveillance purposes.

New guard posts near the two Koreas’ entry routes to the JSA will replace the surveillance guard posts that were removed. Two guard posts will be built to prevent defection, such as last year’s defection by a North Korean soldier in a hail of bullets from the North’s side.

“If we finish installing new guard posts and adjusting surveillance equipment, we can allow free movement inside the JSA as early as possible,” said a defense official, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Since two US soldiers were brutally murdered by North Koreans in 1976, security guards have been prohibited from entering areas under the other side’s control, their patrolling area separated by the Military Demarcation Line that divides the two Koreas inside the JSA. 

When the changes are put into effect, unarmed soldiers from the two sides wearing “Military Police of Panmunjom” armbands will be allowed to cross the MDL marked by a concrete slab and enter each other’s zones freely.

Outside visitors will be allowed to travel freely inside the JSA from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but there could be restrictions on tours if the UNC or two Koreas’ militaries deem it necessary, military officials said.

(jasonyeo@heraldcorp.com)