Inter-Korean border village re-opens for public tours

Panmunjom (South Korea) (AFP) –


South Korean soldiers held their normal stern and unmoving positions Wednesday outside the blue huts of Panmunjom village, the only place along the border where troops from the two Koreas stand nearly face-to-face, but with one notable omission: their weapons.

Sporting their signature aviator sunglasses, the guards in the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula -- standing only metres away from North Korean soldiers -- were visibly no longer armed.

Public tours to the southern side of the inter-Korean border village resumed on Wednesday morning with firearms and guardposts now removed from the designated Joint Security Area (JSA), after having been stopped in October to facilitate joint efforts by Seoul and Pyongyang to demilitarise the border.

But with Pyongyang still in deadlock with the US over its nuclear weapons and economic sanctions -- and fresh tension between North and South Korea -- the tours began again with little fanfare.

The truce village is a frequent destination for tourists on both sides of the border, and for US presidents seeking to symbolically demonstrate Washington's commitment to defend Seoul from the nuclear-armed North.

The resumption of the tours is timed to mark the first anniversary of the Panmunjom summit, the first inter-Korean talks between the South's Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un, held at the truce village last year.

That summit fuelled a whirlwind of diplomacy which has died down amid deadlock over Pyongyang's denuclearisation.

Seoul and Pyongyang had initially agreed to resume the full tour programme and allow visitors to explore both the South and North sides of the village.

But the plan did not materialise as the US-led United Nations Command, which has overseen affairs in the DMZ since the end of 1950-53 Korean War, has yet to agree on the idea.

Seoul eventually decided to resume public tours to the south side of the area only.

While exchanges between Seoul and Pyongyang have significantly cooled after the collapse of Kim Jong Un's second summit with Trump in Hanoi, the UNC insisted tension has been significantly reduced in the JSA.

"What once was a vibe of tension is now a vibe of peace," said Sean Morrow, commander of the UNC Security Battalion-JSA.

"We've ensured that this side has been de-mined. We've taken the weapons out of the towers. Our guards no longer carry weapons... And our counterparts in the North side did the same," he said.

But since Hanoi, the North has not attended any of the weekly meetings of the heads of their joint liaison office in Kaesong, and has not taken part in other joint projects.

Kim slammed the South in a speech to his country's rubber-stamp legislature last month, saying it should not "pose as a meddlesome 'mediator'" between the US and Pyongyang.

Last week, on the anniversary of the Panmunjom summit, Pyongyang's state media KCNA said Washington and Seoul "keep pushing the situation of the Korean peninsula and the region to an undesirable phase," criticising their joint military exercises.

But Morrow said he now gets "acknowledgement" from his North Korean counterparts in the JSA, due to the easing of tensions in the truce village.

"I would get a smile, a head nod," he said.

Around 80 South Korean students and tourists visited the village as tours resumed on Wednesday.

"Before coming here I was quite nervous, but being here I realise it's actually more peaceful here," said Jung Eun-hee, a 46-year-old tourist who made her first visit to the village Wednesday.

"I can resonate with the word peace here."