Inside the truce village where a North Korean soldier defected

A barricade is set on the road leading to the truce village of Panmunjom.
A barricade is set on the road leading to the truce village of Panmunjom. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - A North Korean defector on Monday made a bold dash through gunfire across a stretch of the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea: The Joint Security Area in the so-called truce village of Panmunjom.

It's the only place in the Demilitarised Zone - the fortified no man's land that spans the width of the Korean Peninsula, acting as a buffer - where soldiers from the North and South stand just feet from one another. It's also seen as one of the only places where someone could make a break for the border.

A scattering of heavily guarded buildings straddles the demarcation line between the two countries where the 1953 armistice suspending the Korean War was signed.

In recent years, the spot has become the background for photo ops for US presidents on visits to the South and a destination for tourists. But Monday's dramatic defection in a hail of gunfire was a reminder that it is still an active military site.

What the Truce Village Looks Like

The Demilitarised Zone is heavily fortified, lined with mines and barbed-wire fences, and is regularly patrolled by troops on both sides, while still keeping those forces at a distance from one another. But the truce village is an outlier.

Created in the wake of the 1953 agreement as a place for negotiation and discussion, the space was established as the one place in the DMZ where soldiers and officials could come face-to-face.

The United Nations Command administers the site. Soldiers patrol the plaza, which is flanked by two looming buildings: The Freedom House on the South's side and Panmon Hall on the northern side.

But at the centre, six squat buildings actually straddle the demarcation line. Three are painted the powder blue of the United Nations.

It is inside these conference buildings - where the United Nations Command has facilitated peace talks over the years - that visitors can walk freely across the border. This all happens under the watchful eyes of stone-faced guards.

Outside, a low cement slab between the buildings marks the border that soldiers, and visiting tourists, dare not cross.

Those who come to the South Korean side stand back and gaze with curiosity across the plaza to catch a glimpse of their reclusive neighbours to the north.

How the Defector Escaped

The North Korean who defected this week raced in a vehicle towards the demarcation line in the Joint Security Area around 3.15 pm Monday, according to South Korean military officials.

His car became stuck on the north side of the border, officials said on Tuesday at a news conference, and he jumped out and ran towards the South. That's when four North Korean soldiers chased him and opened fire.

The defector made it across the border, taking shelter near a building. He had been shot and wounded several times before South Korean and US forces found him 55 yards south of the demarcation line and dragged him to safety.

He was then taken to a hospital, where he was in critical condition Tuesday, South Korea's state-run news outlet Yonhap reported.

Until Monday, no North Korean defector had crossed the demarcation line in the Joint Security Area since 2007.

GUNSHOTS IN THE TRUCE VILLAGE

It's not the first time the truce village at Panmunjom has been rattled by violence.

In 1984, a Soviet tour guide from the northern side of the border dashed across the demarcation line, with 30 members of the North Korean military at his back.

The troops exchanged fire with South Korean soldiers in the Joint Security Area, killing one and wounding two others, but the defector escaped uninjured.

In 1976, North Korean soldiers wielding axes shocked the world when they attacked and killed two U.S. soldiers in the Joint Security Area.

That episode changed the way soldiers move about this zone. Before the attack, they could cross over the demarcation line, but since the ax attack, each opposing forces must remain on its own side.