DMZ entry control issue up for high-level talks

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DMZ entry control issue up for high-level talks

South Korea’s Defense Ministry on Tuesday said it was in discussions with the United Nations Command (UNC) over entry rights into the demilitarized zone (DMZ), in response to disagreements about usage of the area.

The ministry’s spokesperson, Choi Hyun-soo, said the entry control issue was being discussed with the UNC through multiple channels ranging from working-level officials to high-ranking figures. The UNC’s deputy commander, Vice Admiral Stuart Mayer of the Royal Australian Navy, and Chung Suk-hwan, Seoul’s deputy defense minister for national defense policy, are to conduct the high-level talks, according to ministry sources.

A day earlier, in a parliamentary audit session at the National Assembly, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul admitted the need for “legal improvements” to the UNC’s jurisdiction over entry into the DMZ as stipulated under the terms of the armistice agreement that ended hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The comment came as a response to Rep. Chun Jung-bae, who said the lack of recourse for Seoul in the event that the UNC forbids DMZ entry “completely violates the principles of the rule of law and democracy,” and stressed the necessity of an institutional supplement to allow for non-military usage of the DMZ.

“If you look at the armistice agreement, [the UNC’s] control over entry into the DMZ is limited to matters of a military nature,” Kim answered. “There have been issues raised about the legality of entry control over non-military matters, like environmental inspections, research into historical artifacts or visits to guard posts.”

Kim also acknowledged there had been “differences in opinion” between the government and the UNC about entry control over the DMZ and the military demarcation line - the formal border separating the two Koreas - but that the two sides were in close talks to alleviate these disagreements.

The remarks stood out as a rare disclosure from a high-ranking official in Seoul about a major component of the armistice agreement linked to Seoul’s sovereignty over its own territory.

The UNC, while a multinational command structure, is commanded by the head of the United States Forces Korea, and is effectively regarded as a U.S.-led organ.

Under Seoul’s Moon Jae-in administration, which has actively pursued peace-building efforts on the Korean Peninsula, the DMZ has emerged as a significant pressure point in the South Korea-U.S. alliance, particularly as Seoul and Washington diverged in regards to exchanges with North Korea.

Last August, South Korea requested to send a train through the DMZ as part of a project to inspect and ultimately modernize the North’s railways, but the UNC rejected the proposal, citing there wasn’t enough time to review the request. In January this year, the UNC derailed the South Korean government’s plans to send humanitarian aid in the form of Tamiflu, an influenza medicine, because the trucks that would be used to transport the drugs were banned by U.S. economic sanctions on the North.

Separately, South Korea also needed to obtain the UNC’s approval to build three so-called peace trails in border towns of the DMZ, an initiative that was meant to encourage inter-Korean civilian exchanges toward an eventual transformation of the zone into a peace park. Those permits were granted, but questions continue to loom about Seoul’s autonomy to pursue non-military policies related to the DMZ without backing from Washington.

On the controversy, a Unification Ministry official told reporters on Tuesday that Seoul would work to “institutionalize” future DMZ entry issues with the UNC, by improving relevant regulations and manuals, so as to alleviate issues related to non-military initiatives - within the framework of the armistice agreement. A component of this process, the official said, would be to create a guideline to gauge whether a project could be classified as military or non-military.

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