Before President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un hold their announced summit in May, they must first agree on a meeting site deemed secure and convenient.
Pyongyang? Beijing? Mar-a-Lago? All unlikely. Many experts agree the only logical location is Panmunjom, a heavily guarded “truce village” in the Demilitarized Zone that divides Korea. It’s a site where the North and South have occasionally engaged in talks. It is also where the 1953 armistice was signed, suspending — but not ending — the Korean War.
“Clearly that is the place where they should meet,” said Balbina Hwang, who served as a Korea specialist in the U.S. State Department during the George W. Bush administration. “I don’t understand why there is any debate about it.”
But there is debate. Although generally peaceful, Panmunjom as been the scene of defections, miscalculations and violence over the years. While that hasn’t stopped dignitaries and tourists from visiting the site, it is a consideration.
“I can’t imagine the discussions the people in the White House are having right now about security,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA Korea analyst now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Even so, Terry agrees that Panmunjom would be the most appropriate site for the summit, assuming it is actually held.
“It should be fine for Kim-Trump,” said Daniel Pinkston, a U.S. Air Force veteran and security expert at Troy University in Seoul. “It is functional in terms of the required support — communications, security, etc. So it makes a lot of sense to hold it there given the short preparation time.”
Also known as the Joint Security Area, Panmunjom sits at the midpoint of the heavily mined, four-kilometer wide DMZ, roughly 32 miles northwest of Seoul and 100 miles southeast of Pyongyang. Both Trump and Kim could easily make it to the site from the respective South and North Korean capitals.
Within Panmunjom, two imposing buildings — the Freedom House on the south side and Panmon Hall on the north — stand on opposite sides of a plaza. In between are seven blue and gray meeting halls, with the Military Demarkation Line running through them. On either side, guards for the United Nations Command face off against their North Korean counterparts.
It’s an eerie sight, but not so hair-raising that visiting dignitaries, media and tourists don’t regularly witness it.
During a July visit by a group of media, a U.N. guard wearing aviator glasses instructed the group on taking photos of the North and South Korean guards.
“Do not make any hand gestures to the north,” the guard instructed. “And do not go beyond the soldier beside you on the left or right.”
Avoiding provocation is the name of the game at Panmunjom. And there is a reason for that.
Incidents in the ‘truce village’
When the Korean War armistice was signed at Panmunjom, the two sides established the site as a neutral ground, with no boundary separating north and south. Guards for the two sides kept an eye on each other at several checkpoints. This included one manned by the U.N. Command that had a sightline blocked by large poplar tree.
To maintain its sightline, the U.N. command regularly trimmed the poplar. When it did so on Aug. 18, 1976, North Korean troops attacked the tree trimmers with axes.
Two U.S. Army officers were killed. The peninsula was thrown into crisis mode. In Japan, the U.S. Air Force base at was placed on alert. American forces in South Korea increased their readiness level to DEFCON 3.
What later became known as the “Axe Murder Incident” did not escalate into war, but it prompted changes within Panmunjom. Guards for the U.N. Command and North Korea were separated from each other, to avoid further incidents.
It wasn’t entire successful. In 1984, a Soviet translator in North Korea attempted to defect to the south by fleeing across the Military Demarcation Line. North Korean troops opened fire, and U.N. troops returned fire. The translator made it to safety, but four North Koreans and one South Korean officer were killed in the firefight.
Panmunjom was mostly quiet into the current century. Then in November, a North Korea soldier fled across the demarcation line in another attempted defection. His comrades opened fire and struck the soldier, who nonetheless was successful in reaching the south.
I can’t imagine the discussions the people in the White House are having right now about security
Sue Mi Terry, former Korea analyst for the CIA
Every year, roughly 1.2 million tourists visit the DMZ, with some getting the chance to visit Panmunjom at times not deemed sensitive by the U.N. Command. Visitors must first stop at Camp Bonifas, the U.N Command base outside the DMZ that is named for one of the officers killed in the Ax Murder Incident.
There, the tourists are treated to a video on the history of bloody incidents of Panmunjom. “So the JSA is evidently the most dangerous place to be in the Republic of Korea,” the announcer said during a presentation of the video in July.
Hwang, who has visited Panmunjom several times, said the U.N. Command likes to play up the danger, in part, so U.S. visitors can better appreciate their expenditure of tax dollars on the Korean peninsula.
South Korea also loves the tourist dollars that come from the DMZ, which is why there is a gift shop at Camp Bonifas and tours of the tunnels the North Koreans have dug under the border. There’s also a “Peace Land” theme park, with fantasy rides, near the edge of the DMZ.
In addition, numerous sitting U.S. presidents have visited the DMZ with no problems, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
While Panmunjom has experienced flareups, such incidents would be far less likely to occur during a meeting of the two leaders, said Terry, the former CIA analyst. Hwang agrees. “If the two leaders were to go there, can you imagine how much heavy the security would be?” she said.
McClatchy’s William Douglas contributed to this report.