SEOUL - The two Koreas were removing the last remaining firearms and guard posts on Thursday from a village where armed soldiers have stared each other down for decades, Seoul’s defense ministry said.
The Joint Security Area — also known as the truce village of Panmunjom — has historically been both a flash point and a key location for diplomacy between the two Koreas ever since their split in 1953.
It is the only spot along the tense, 250-kilometer (155-mile) frontier where soldiers from North Korea and the U.S.-led United Nations Command stand face to face.
By Friday, all guards will be disarmed, ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said, part of a recent diplomatic thaw between the two foes that has gathered pace. “I am aware that it is going according to plan,” Choi told reporters.
Panmunjom was where the armistice that ended the bitter Korean War was signed.
It was a designated neutral zone until the “ax murder incident” in 1976, when North Korean soldiers attacked a work party trying to chop down a tree inside the Demilitarized Zone, leaving two U.S. army officers dead.
Once demilitarized, the JSA will be guarded by 35 unarmed personnel from each side, and “freedom of movement” will be allowed for visitors and tourists, according to a military pact signed between the two Koreas last month.
South and North Korea — which are technically still at war — agreed to take measures to ease military tensions on their border at a meeting in Pyongyang last month between President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un.
The two sides finished removing land mines at the JSA — which has been increasingly used for talks between the two Koreas — last week as part of the deal.
The September summit was the third this year between the leaders as a remarkable rapprochement takes hold on the peninsula. Moon has advocated engagement with the isolated North to nudge it toward denuclearization.
The two Koreas and the U.N. Command, which is included as it retains jurisdiction over the southern half of the JSA, will conduct a joint verification until Saturday.
The UNC chief, U.S. general Vincent Brooks, told reporters in August that as U.N. commander he supported initiatives that could reduce military tensions.
But he added that as commander of the combined U.S.-South Korean forces — one of his other roles — he felt there was a “reasonable degree of risk” in Seoul’s plans to dismantle guard posts near the DMZ.
South Korea recently discovered what could be Korean War remains in the area where mines are being cleared, Seoul officials said Thursday.
Earlier this week, South Korean troops found what it believes are two sets of human remains during the demining work. A bayonet, bullets and a South Korean Army identification tag with the name “Pak Je-kwon” were also found along with the bones, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said.
The ministry said military records show Pak was a sergeant first class who died in a battle in 1953 in the final weeks of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Pak has two surviving sisters, and authorities will take their DNA samples to find out if parts of the bones belong to him, the ministry release said.
The area, known as Arrowhead Hill, is where South Korean and U.S.-led U.N. troops repelled a series of Chinese attacks to secure a strategically important hilltop position. South Korea said the remains of an estimated 300 South Korean, French and U.S. soldiers are believed to be in the area. The remains of a large number of Chinese and North Korean soldiers are also likely there.
The Korean War left millions dead or missing, and Seoul officials believe the remains of about 10,000 South Korean soldiers alone are still inside the DMZ.