SEOUL • The two Koreas were removing the last remaining firearms and guard posts yesterday from a Cold War-era truce village where armed soldiers have stared down each other for decades, Seoul's Defence Ministry said.
The Joint Security Area (JSA) - also known as the truce village of Panmunjom - has historically been both a flashpoint and a key location for diplomacy between the two Koreas ever since their split in 1953.
It is the only spot along the tense 250km frontier where soldiers from North Korea and the US-led United Nations Command stand face-to-face. By today, all guards will be disarmed, South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Choi Hyun-soo said, part of a recent diplomatic thaw between the two foes that has gathered pace. "I am aware that it is going according to plan," she said.
Panmunjom was where the armistice that ended the bitter Korean War was signed. It was a designated neutral zone until the "axe murder incident" in 1976, when North Korean soldiers attacked a work party trying to chop down a tree inside the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), killing two US army officers.
Once demilitarised, the JSA will be guarded by 35 unarmed personnel from each side and "freedom of movement" will be allowed for visitors and tourists, according to a military pact signed between the two Koreas last month.
South and North Korea - which are technically still at war - agreed to take measures to ease military tensions on their border at a meeting in Pyongyang last month between South Korea's President Moon Jae-in and the North's leader, Mr Kim Jong Un.
The two sides finished removing landmines at the JSA - which has been increasingly used for talks between the two Koreas - last week as part of the deal. Last month's summit was the third this year between the leaders, as a remarkable rapprochement takes hold.
Mr Moon has advocated engagement with the isolated North to nudge it towards denuclearisation.
The two Koreas and the UN Command, which is included as it retains jurisdiction over the southern half of the JSA, will conduct a joint verification of the disarmament until tomorrow.
The UN Command chief, US General Vincent Brooks, told reporters in August that as UN commander he supported initiatives that could reduce military tensions.
But he added that as commander of the combined US-South Korean forces - one of his other roles - he felt there was a "reasonable degree of risk" in Seoul's plans to dismantle guard posts near the DMZ.
The US has expressed concerns that the inter-Korean military initiative could undermine defence readiness, and comes without substantial progress on North Korea's promised denuclearisation.