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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
South Korea will reopen the southern part of Panmunjom to the public on May 1 following an almost seven-month-long closure, the country’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced on Monday.
In a statement following months of stalled talks between the two Koreas and the United Nations Command (UNC) over plans for the free movement of visitors within the Joint Security Area (JSA) and other logistical issues, the MND said the tours would go ahead.
“Field trips to Panmunjom, which have been tentatively suspended in the process of implementing inter-Korean agreements, will be resumed on May 1,” the ROK MND said in a written statement.
Last September’s inter-Korean military agreement saw the two commit to demilitarizing the JSA as part of joint efforts to transform the broader demilitarized zone (DMZ) into a peace zone.
But following an agreement in November between the two Koreas and the UNC on new guard-post duty rules for the newly-demilitarized JSA, the three sides appear to have hit an impasse.
May 1 will, as a result, see the return of tours to the southern side, though plans for free movement of tourists across the JSA remain on hold.
Tourists continue to be able to visit the DPRK side of the JSA through tour companies operating in the North, however.
Monday saw the South Korean government say it hoped the restarting of visits to the area would help encourage the three sides to come to an agreement.
“We have decided to resume the tours to the southern part of Panmunjom first to promote the prolonged trilateral consultation,” the MND said.
“Furthermore, the government will make all efforts to expand the tours to the northern part by taking the resumption of field trips to the southern part of Panmunjom as an opportunity.”
The two Koreas and the UNC will continue consultations over allowing visitors to freely travel to both the northern and southern parts of the JSA, ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo told a press briefing on Monday.
By opening up Panmunjom to the public, Seoul hopes to “make advance preparation for the free movement between the two Koreas that will take place in the future,” the MND added.
Despite the delays, the two Koreas and the UNC now appear to have completed the demilitarization of the JSA in accordance with September’s military agreement.
October saw the three parties remove mines, withdraw guard posts and firearms, adjust the number of personnel, and jointly verify the completion of those measures.
A joint on-site survey to adjust surveillance equipment was also conducted on November 12 and 13.
The ROK military on Monday said Saturday’s first anniversary of the inter-Korean Panmunjom Declaration had played a role in its decision to reopen tours to the public.
Seoul has also reportedly expanded the scope of tourism at the JSA, allowing tourists to visit some of the main sites of last year’s April meeting between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including a footbridge used by the two during that summit.
“The government has made preparations so that visitors can realize that the Panmunjom has been transformed from a venue of division and confrontation to peace and harmony,” the defense ministry said.
“They can also experience the ‘demilitarized’ Panmunjom by observing a guard post at which the South and North work together with the guidance of the guards without possessing any firearms.”
The South Korean government on Saturday also opened a walking trail in Goseong county, connecting parts of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to the public.
Seoul government earlier in the month said it would begin to operate one of three “peace and security”-themed “DMZ Peace Road” walking trails.
Seoul’s decision to resume tours to the truce village of Panmunjom comes amid a months-long freeze in inter-Korean dialogue.
The North is yet to respond to the South’s March 18 proposal for inter-Korean general-level military talks, with the most recent meeting of that kind having been held on October 26 last year.
Officials from the South Korean army met North Korean counterparts for working-level talks in January, but no military contact between the two Koreas has been reported since then.
Marking the first anniversary of last April’s inter-Korean agreement, the South Korean government on Saturday held a commemorative event at Panmunjom without the North Korean side.
The same day, North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) warned in a statement that the two Koreas stood at a crossroads between a return to the past when the tensions “spiraled up towards a catastrophe” and peace.
The statement echoed a policy speech delivered by the North Korean leader on April 12, in which he called on Seoul to work towards the “interests of the nation” and work to prevent “ties plunged into a catastrophe, with the danger of war increasing.”
In a video message on Saturday, President Moon said the South would wait for the North to make a step toward.
“This is a new path, and as we all must take it together, we need, sometimes, to wait for those moving slower to catch up,” he said.
“In the face of obstacles, sometimes, we need to catch our breath for a while and find the way together.”
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) on Monday stressed that the President’s remarks did not mean to suggest that Seoul would seek to slow the pace of its engagement with the North.
“The President had proposed to hold inter-Korean summit regardless of format and venue,” ministry spokesperson Lee Sang-min told a press briefing.
“Our stance that we will continue the consultation with relevant ministries to make full preparation to promote the South-North summit has remained unchanged.”
Despite this, Lee accepted that progress in implementing last year’s inter-Korean agreements “has been slowing down” since February’s no-deal summit between the U.S. and the DPRK.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Ministry of National Defense