[VIEWPOINT]When a life form has grown old

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[VIEWPOINT]When a life form has grown old

"In front of them all" bellows a young U.S. Army private as we enter the Demilitarized Zone on this gray and rainy spring afternoon. I am on my way to visit the Swiss delegation to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commis-sion in Panmunjom, where I worked for 18 months during the mid-1980s. It is an odd institution, an anachronistic relic that symbolizes Korea's struggle to turn half a century of hot and Cold War confrontations into a political arrangement that can bring stability, perhaps even peace.

The Neutral Nations Super-visory Commission was established with the Armistice Agree-ment in July 1953. Its sole purpose was to supervise two clauses in the agreement that prohibited the introduction of new military personnel and weapons. Five ports of entry were designated on each side and the commission was given the task of controlling them. Its neutrality consisted of each side choosing two nations that had not actively participated in the war. The north opted for Czechoslovakia and Poland. Switzerland and Sweden were the southern selections.

With the intensification of the Cold War, the idea of retaining current levels of military personnel and equipment became a farce. An arms race soon took hold of the peninsula and by June 1956 all NNSC inspection teams had been completely withdrawn.

With its official purpose gone, the commission radically shrank. Only a few dozen members remain of the hundreds who once controlled various ports of entry. By the time I arrived, in 1986, the Swiss delegation consisted of a mere six people. By then the purpose of the commission had changed. It consisted of establishing informal links across the DMZ at a time when there were few meaningful interactions between North and South. NNSC members met daily in the Joint Security Area and embarked on frequent visits to both sides.

As I stroll through the Swiss Camp, a two-minute walk from the JSA, much looks the same as 15 years ago -- at least at first sight. The barracks have not changed, nor has the atmosphere, which is as surreal as ever. But the rusty barbed wire on the fence has been replaced and the nights are distinctly more tranquil now. The propaganda warfare that used to blare out of loudspeakers across the DMZ has been considerably tuned down.

Other things have changed as well. Walls collapsing in Europe left their mark on Korea, too. The Czech Republic, now capitalist and no longer welcome in the North, withdrew its delegation in 1993. The Poles have left as well, but still send an observer every now and then for a quick visit. A reduced contingent of Swiss and Swedes remains, but without access to the North. Cut in half and banished to the southern side of the DMZ, the NNSC has lost not only its official raison d'etre, but also its unofficial -- and perhaps most useful -- function as an intermediary. Its remaining representatives hold out in the JSA, waiting for dusk to fall and for the Owl of Minerva to spread its wings. For they know, to borrow from Hegel, that when a form of life has grown old it cannot be rejuvenated, but only know.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall makes the DMZ look like a Cold War theme park. "Old times must be sent away," urges Ko Un, one of Korea's foremost poets. And some signs of change are indeed visible, timid as they may be. In the North, a reclusive leader with an Elvis hairdo daily logs on to the Internet to check out what his archenemy in the South is up to. Across the dividing line, a dissident-turned-president speaks of sunshine and of landing softly. No one wants a crash.

But so far detente is little more than a noble vision, despite the unprecedented summit meeting that took place between the two Korean heads of state in June 2000. Less than two years later a new and tougher U.S. president named North Korea as one of three nations in an "axis of evil," citing as evidence Pyeongyang's export of ballistic missile technology, its lingering ambition to become a nuclear power and its problematic human rights record. The North angrily denounced the "nuclear lunatics" in Washington and threatened to abandon the Agreed Framework that had regulated security affairs on the peninsula since the mid-1990s

I often wonder how the world looks today to those North Koreans I met in the mid-1980s. Many may no longer be alive. Half a decade of recurring famines have devastated the country and its people, evil or not. Those who are still there belong to an extremely isolated state that has lost all its traditional allies and trading partners. Even our NNSC colleagues, the Czechs and the Poles, long ago switched sides. "In front of them all" echoes through my head as we roll out of Panmunjom on our way south. I take one more look back, but all I can see is a large red flag rapidly fading away in the distance.


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Roland Bleiker teaches peace and conflict studies at the University of Queensland in Australia. He is a visiting fellow at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies.

by Roland Bleiker

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