About the Author
View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
The South Korean side of the Joint Security Area (JSA) opened on Wednesday for the first time in nearly six months, with numerous changes observable resulting from military confidence-building measures agreed between the two Koreas last September.
The temporary closure of the facility, which had only been implemented on the South Korean side of the military demarcation line (MDL), ended Wednesday with a soft-opening that revealed a number of changes to assembled visitors and journalists.
“I think that what you’ll feel here in Panmunjom is a different vibe,” said Lt. Col. Sean Morrow, commander of the United Nations Command Security Battalion-JSA, according to pool reports.
“What once was a vibe of tension is now a vibe of peace. We’ve taken away the land mines. 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.”
In addition to new uniforms worn by soldiers North of the border, South Korean soldiers on duty at the JSA were seen unarmed and wearing camouflage-format uniforms different to the beige-colored shirts and aviator sunglasses of years prior.
Meanwhile, many of the cameras and surveillance equipment mounted on the front of Panmungak Pavillion on the Northern side and Freedom House on the Southern side had been visibly removed.
Just one CCTV camera, for example, could still be seen mounted on the top of Panmungak Pavillion on the DPRK side, at least two fewer than in a December 2017 photo of the same building.
Visitors can also now see the tree planted by North and South Korean leaders during the Panmunjom summit of April 2018.
Access to the blue footbridge that South Korean President Moon Jae-in and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong Un sat and chat on last year, however, remains out of bounds pending further works.
“In order to accommodate the large number of tourists that are going to come down here to the blue bridge, we just need to make sure that everything is safe,” Morrow said according to pool reports.
“It will be open very soon to all tourists.”
The area a North Korean soldier ran and fled across the MDL under fire in November 2017 can also be seen, with at least three bullet holes still visible on infrastructure on the South Korean side.
And the “Bridge of No Return,” last used in 1968 when North Korea repatriated U.S. crewmembers captured with the USS Pueblo, remains inaccessible to tourists for now due to the risk of mines north of the MDL.
A roughly 15-minute video played to visitors at the beginning of tours has also been reproduced from scratch, featuring new content to reflect diplomatic overtures between the two Koreas and a much more peaceful tone than was previously the case.
Former video references to North Korea as the “enemy” were absent from the updated presentation, with portions set aside to illustrate the Panmunjom declaration as well as challenges remaining on the road to denuclearization.
However, previous references to the Soviet defector incident have now been removed from the clip – and no mention of the November 2017 defection was included – though the history of the 1976 ax murder incident remained included, nonetheless.
While South Korea suspended visitor access to the JSA since last October due to concerns about security and taking care of visitors while changes were being implemented, things continued unchanged on the Northern side.
“Their number fluctuates every week. Sometimes they have 100 people in a week; other times they have 900,” Morrow said of recent tourist interest from the North.
On the South Korean side, regular tours will resume from Friday, with over 220 requests for tours received since the resumption was announced on Monday.
Featured image: NK News
Additional reporting: Pool