Demilitarizing the DMZ

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Demilitarizing the DMZ


Kathleen Stephens
The author was a U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C.

It’s been an unsettling summer. I escaped Washington’s sultry August to my Montana cabin and its cold, clear lakes and streams, star-studded night skies, forested mountains and intermittent internet connectivity. But even there news from the outside was inescapable, and distressing. Perhaps the world is, as one Indian diplomat put it to me recently, in the midst of unprecedented, synchronized global crises, all challenging the resilience and relevance of the institutions and relationships that shaped the post-World War II world.

These thoughts were on my mind as I arrived in Korea in late August to participate in an international conference to examine the prospects for a “peace economy” on the Korean peninsula. Somewhat unusually for this kind of international conference of scholars, politicians and officials, the discussions were preceded by a full day spent visiting sites along the DMZ, including Panmunjom, or the Joint Security Area (JSA).

Unlike most of the other participants, I had been to the JSA before. I had vivid memories of my first visit, in August 1975, when my group of thirty-plus newly-arrived Peace Corps volunteers made the trip as a required part of our pre-service training program. Before embarking from Seoul, we were instructed and inspected to ensure we were properly dressed and groomed to present the correct image (no jeans, sandals, T-shirts or men’s long hair allowed!). The road out of Seoul quickly narrowed as it threaded through an increasingly empty landscape, with rice fields and rivers riven with barbed wire and our guide pointing out the multiple tank traps looming over the road ready to block invasion. At Panmunjom, tall American soldiers recited their briefing, as almost-as-tall North Korean soldiers looked on impassively. The tension was broken only when we were allowed to go to the American snack bar to buy the first hamburger we’d seen since arriving.

In the following year, 1976, I was living in South Chungcheong and watched on black-and-white Korean television grainy, shocking video of the tree-pruning confrontation at the JSA as two American military officers were murdered by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers. In the many years after that, as I returned to Korea in the ‘80s as a young diplomat and again years later as an American ambassador, I returned also to Panmunjom and other parts of the DMZ on multiple occasions, often with American politicians, most recently in 2018 with Stanford University students. I saw that Panmunjom made deep, lasting impressions on everyone who visited it, with those impressions creating frameworks for how they viewed and interpreted Korea’s division and security.

So although I was a veteran of such visits, I eagerly accepted the invitation to spend a day along the 38th parallel with a group larger and more diverse than on my previous DMZ visits. There were very few Americans, and few “Korea experts” — instead it included a former Mongolian President and other senior former politicians and officials, the heads of prestigious think-tanks from around the world, and numerous Korean scholars and students. I welcomed the chance to see the DMZ through their eyes, and to see what had changed, and hadn’t, following the past year of intensive engagement with North Korea.

We went to Mount Odusan, peering across a dreamy landscape of rice fields and river to North Korea. We went to Imjingak, imagining a train line that would connect Busan not only with Pyongyang but with Paris. Finally, we went to the JSA, Panmunjom, where the American flag still flies beside the United Nations and South Korea flag, but where, as has been true for over a decade, the South Korean military, not the U.S., is responsible for the area. And as been true since Sept. 19, 2018 thanks to the South Korea-North Korea military agreement, the security forces on both sides of the JSA no longer carry side arms, and nearby guard posts have been closed.

We saw the venues where the various summitry of the past year has occurred, including the stunning artwork that formed the backdrop for the leaders’ meetings. We walked along the bridge that President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim Jong-un used for their tête-à-tête, an oasis of tranquility and natural beauty that belies its location.

For me it was a day of many emotions and mixed thoughts. I reflected on Korea’s turbulent modern history, all that has been achieved, all that remains unfulfilled. Of the profound tragedy of Korea’s initially inadvertent and then devastatingly etched division. Of the human as well as the economic cost of that continuing division and estrangement.

Beginning in 2018, Panmunjom and the DMZ became a venue for diplomacy of greater significance than at any time since the 1953 Armistice signing. President Moon Jae-in and his administration took the initiative in using the PyeongChang Olympics to create an opportunity to shift away from a situation where tensions were rising dangerously and unpredictably. The preparatory inter-Korean negotiations; the Panmunjom North-South summit; the first-ever visit together of a South Korean President and an American President literally taking an unprecedented step reaching out to Chairman Kim Jong-un to continue the process: Let us hope that Panmunjom is becoming a place of dialogue, not diatribe or even worse, violence.

The tension-reduction steps taken under the inter-Korean September agreement are helping to build confidence and maintain momentum, particularly at a time when denuclearization talks are stalled. These are indeed welcome, if only initial, steps toward demilitarizing the DMZ. But they must continue and expand, and be accompanied by the resumption of negotiations both on the inter-Korean and denuclearization fronts.

There are real differences between the JSA in 1975 and 2019; they are welcome ones. But the fact of the DMZ, that scar across the Korean peninsula remains too stubbornly unchanged, as does the reality — well-recognized by the impressive Korean soldiers we met there — that protecting the security of the ROK remains paramount.

The “peace economy” sounds to many like a still too-distant dream, or illusion. But as I stood, as I have over the decades, peering into isolated North Korea, I thought about how the DMZ had made South Korea a virtual island. South Korea has found brilliant ways to compensate for its own isolation in its global rise, but its full promise and destiny — and that of Northeast Asia — is contained in the vision of a “peace economy” that unites through infrastructure, economic opportunity, and denuclearization, a too-long divided people and land.
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