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2018_06_01
The Spatio-Temporal Politics of Panmunjom
         

The Spatio-Temporal Politics of Panmunjom


written by Kim Chaehan (professor, Hallym University) | edited by Lee Jiyoon | photographed by Kim Chaehan (unless otherwise indicated)


Panmunjom has been named the ‘Joint Security Area (JSA)’ and it runs approximately 800 metres across from east to west and 400 metres from north to south along Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The moment North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met and shook hands on the MDL of Panmunjom in Korea was broadcast live across the world in April 2018. Since then, Panmunjom has become a familiar space to many people. The space of Panmunjom may affect politico-military outcomes, peace-and-war, the division and reunification of the Korean peninsula through some symbolic effects while the space has been their complex outcome. This article reveals the politics of space which underlies Panmunjom.


Image courtesy of National Archives of Korea


The Symbolic Effects of Spatial Layout

On 10 July 1951, a year after the outbreak of the Korean War, the first armistice meeting was held at the foot of Mt. Songak in Kaesong. The Communists tried to fill the space with propaganda detailing their own victory. The Communist army held the truce talks in an area in which the army was in control, just south of the 38th parallel north of the latitude. The Communist delegation took the seats to the south while the UN delegation was given low chairs as if the UN forces delegation had surrendered.▼1 On the conference table, both sides tried to change their flags to bigger ones. This arrangement of the truce talks made any agreement difficult, in a war where the winning side and the defeated side had not been clearly distinguished.

In October 1951, a cease-fire meeting was convened in Panmunjom instead of Kaesong. The Communist army withdrew its claim that it would take the 38th parallel as a military demarcation line, agreeing with the UN forces to set their front line to a military demarcation line. During the truce talks, Panmunjom was called the Joint Security Area (JSA), in which shooting and bombardment were banned. As the long truce talks reached the end, the North side built a wooden building at Panmunjom.

On 27 July 1953, the Armistice Agreement was signed in the Panmunjom wooden building. The MDL, which was agreed in the Armistice Agreement, stipulated that the existing Panmunjom would belong to the North. Until only a few days before the conclusion of the Armistice Agreement, the Communist side maintained the position that the Panmunjom should be kept as the conference area for the Military Armistice Commission (MAC), which is responsible solely for the implementation of the Armistice Agreement. The United Nations Command (UNC) refused to travel across the MDL into the North Korean portion of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to hold the MAC meeting at the existing Panmunjom site, and insisted that a new conference area should be established on more neutral ground. The North accepted the UNC proposal for relocation of the MAC conference site to sit astride the MDL.

Both sides continued to call the new conference area ‘Panmunjom’. The existing Panmunjom wooden building has been converted into a Peace Museum by North Korea. The museum displays the image of Pablo Picasso’s dove, which was covered up by the UNC at the time of the signing of the armistice, as well as the axe which was used to beat two U.S. soldiers to death. 

A U.S. engineer officer in charge simply followed his North Korean counterpart, who selected the placement of stakes to mark the perimeter of the conference area.▼2 The end result was that North Korean, Chinese side occupied the higher ground, looking down on the southern conference area. The MAC conference room, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) conference room, and the MAC Joint Duty Office were built by the UNC while two NNSC office buildings and the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) office building were built by the Communist side. After the NNRC was disbanded in 1954, its office building was turned into a North Korean guards recreation room. In 1961, North Korea erected a guard post on top of a hill immediately north of the MAC conference building. Again, in 1964, North Korea built a pagoda park on the hill and named it the Peace Pagoda. In 1965, UNC constructed a Freedom House in the southern yard of the MAC conference area. In 1970, North Korea replaced the Pagoda Park with Panmun-Gak, a large two storey building on the same hill. The Freedom House was renovated by the South in the late 1990s to become a taller structure. This height competition has also spread to nearby areas. As soon as the South Korean DMZ village of Daeseong-dong erected a 100-metre-high national flagpole, the North Korean DMZ village of Kijong-dong built a 160-metre-high national flagpole, which has been recorded as the world’s tallest flagpole by the Guinness Book of Records. These are examples of a competitive nature that one side always wants to be higher than its

opponent.



The Joint Security Area of Separate Security Issues

While joint security worked in Panmunjom, the UNC guidelines prohibited the use of weapons and recommended that UNC security guards should separate from its opponents if fighting occurred in Panmunjom. In a situation in which the use of weapons is prohibited, a superior number of guards will determine the victory or defeat of the fight. The fight in Panmunjom was mainly a way for each side to close off the opponent’s watchdog and to hurt their opponent if they laid themselves open to attack. In the Go board of the position that the Panmunjom should be kept as the conference area for the Military Armistice Commission (MAC), which is responsible solely for the implementation of the Armistice Agreement. The United Nations Command (UNC) refused to travel across the MDL into the North Korean portion of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to hold the MAC meeting at the existing Panmunjom site, and insisted that a new conference area should be established on more neutral ground. The North accepted the UNC proposal for relocation of the MAC conference site to sit astride the MDL. Both sides continued to call the new conference area ‘Panmunjom’. The existing Panmunjom wooden building has been converted into a Peace Museum by North Korea. The museum displays the image of Pablo Picasso’s dove, which was covered up by the UNC at the time of the signing of the armistice, as well as the axe which was used to beat two U.S. soldiers to death.

A U.S. engineer officer in charge simply followed his North Korean counterpart, who selected the placement of stakes to mark the perimeter of the conference area.▼2 The end result was that North Korean, Chinese side occupied the higher ground, looking down on the southern conference area.

The MAC conference room, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) conference room, and the MAC Joint Duty Office were built by the UNC while two NNSC office buildings and the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) office building were built by the Communist side. After the NNRC was disbanded in 1954, its office building was turned into a North Korean guards recreation room.

In 1961, North Korea erected a guard post on top of a hill immediately north of the MAC conference building. Again, in 1964, North Korea built a pagoda park on the hill and named it the Peace Pagoda. In 1965, UNC constructed a Freedom House in the southern yard of the MAC conference area. In 1970, North Korea replaced the Pagoda Park with Panmun-Gak, a large two storey building on the same hill. The Freedom House was renovated by the South in the late 1990s to become a taller structure. 

This height competition has also spread to nearby areas. As soon as the South Korean DMZ village of Daeseong-dong erected a 100-metre-high national flagpole, the North Korean DMZ village of Kijong-dong built a 160-metre-high national flagpole, which has been recorded as the world’s tallest flagpole by the Guinness Book of Records. These are examples of a competitive naturethat one side always wants to be higher than its opponent.


The Joint Security Area of Separate Security Issues

While joint security worked in Panmunjom, the UNC guidelines prohibited the use of weapons and recommended that UNC security guards should separate from its opponents if fighting occurred in Panmunjom. In a situation in which the use of weapons is prohibited, a superior number of guards will determine the victory or defeat of the fight. The fight in Panmunjom was mainly a way for each side to close off the opponent’s watchdog and to hurt their opponent if they laid themselves open to attack. In the Go board of the so-called JSA, black stones and white stones are gathered  respectively, and a stone is captured and removed when it is surrounded by opposing stones. Thus, the strategy in the JSA was man-toman defense rather than zone defense.

The JSA was not geographically symmetrical between the North and the South. Part of the boundary of the JSA overlaps part of the MDL. The MDL across the MAC conference rooms extends to the west and meets the river. The Communist army was able to directly enter the UNC (southern) portion of the JSA through the Bridge of No Return without going through its Communist (northern) portion. The UN forces, however, could not go directly into the northern JSA without going through the southern JSA. In the early 1970s, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) installed four guard posts and two barriers in the UNC portion of the JSA. The UNC security guards were likely to be assaulted when they were surrounded by more KPA security guards. In September 1976, under the supervision of the Joint Observer Team of the MAC, 59 concrete columns at a height of 1m were placed at intervals of 10m to mark the MDL. The MDL was marked with 5cm high, 50cm wide concrete blocks in the vicinity of the conference rooms. It is after the marking of the MDL that the colours of the conference rooms managed by the UNC became deeply sky-blue. Inside the conference room, a microphone cable running through the middle of the conference table served as a military demarcation line. As the North Korean guards

were unable to enter the UNC portion of the JSA, the Bridge of No Return was closed. North Korea built a bridge that connects North Korea’s non- JSA area and the northern portion of the JSA in three days to secure its own supply. For this reason, the bridge is called the 72 Hour Bridge. Now all military personnel except the MAC members and their staff remain on their respective sides of the MDL in the JSA. As the Korean Demilitarized Zone is not a demilitarized zone, the Panmunjom Joint Security Area is no longer a joint security area.


The Effects of Crossing a Wall That Is Low but Difficult to Cross 

The real-world Panmunjom is a great political studio. After the Chinese army withdrew from North Korea in 1958, North Korea insisted on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea at the MAC meetings. Panmunjom became a site of political propaganda. At that time, the U.S. Navy Commander Ira Nunn, who was appointed as the head of the UNC, ordered a microphone to be installed in the MAC conference room and to be connected to several loudspeakers outside the conference room. In 1967, the UNC enlarged the window of the MAC conference room so that people could look into the conference room. It was difficult to achieve agreements in this exposed building structure.

The symbolic effect of Panmunjom increased after the low concrete blocks of the MDL were established inside the area in 1976. Since the time at which the Joint Security Area was no longer a joint security area, the act of crossing the MDL gained greater significance as a political symbol.

In June 1978, there was a performance known as the North Korean Fishermen’s Strip-tease Show. The eight North Korean fishermen, who were rescued in May by the ROK navy, crossed the MDL through Panmunjom, dressed in expensive suits tailored in South Korea stuffed with bags of gifts provided by the South Korean Red Cross.

As soon as a North Korean Army major gave the fishermen directions, they started to undress themselves throwing their suits and gift bags back to the south over the MDL.▼3 Four North Korean fishermen, who were returned to North Korea next month, also took off their clothes. The North Korean crew members, who were repatriated to North Korea in 1960, also took off their clothes inside the conference room, but the effect of their performance was weakened as there was no concrete block of the MDL at that time.

There were many other political events that went beyond the MDL. The most recent case is the 2018 Panmunjom Summit. Gallup Korea’s approval rating of President Moon Jae-in, which was surveyed on 2 – 3 May 2018, immediately after the talks, was 83 percent, up 10 percentage points from a week ago. It was the first time the top leaders of two Koreas walked hand in hand over the MDL, and the political effect was significant.

A bridge known as Foot Bridge was made famous at Panmunjom on the occasion of the summit in April 2018. It is a short walk through the swamp zone between the Swiss-Swede camps and the NNSC conference room. For the event of the summit meeting, the Foot Bridge had been widened and extended to the marker 0101 of the MDL. The two leaders touched the marker together and had one-on-one talks without any attendees present. This achieved a great symbolic effect. 

Politics seeks power by mobilisation that is empowered by emotional intelligence, which is typically amplified by what is made visible. Visible civil engineering structures are the basis for political symbol effects.▼4 Generally, the term ‘space’ may refer to a square, punctuation, or the area beyond the limit. There is only a low military demarcation line in Panmunjom between the North and the South. The MAC conference room, over the military demarcation line, is an empty building that is no longer used for its own purposes. The symbolic effect of such a space may be greater as the space is emptied without being filled.

Time and place affect each other. The meaning of a place is different from time to time, and the meaning of time differs depending on the place. Although the same place may have different meanings over time, Panmunjom has consistently maintained an aura of the cold war phenomenon over the ages of cold war, détente, post-cold war, globalization, and new cold war. In the 1970s, the détente increased the possibility of exchanges like the 7.4 North and South Korea Joint Statement. Both Koreas, however, were oriented towards a closed system based on their domestic political aims. Panmunjom, called the Joint Security Area, has been transformed into a separate security area. Of course, a new megatrend may eventually change the functions of the Panmunjom space.

Blocking and passing are complementary concepts rather than opposites. It is not necessarily easy to cross a low wall and it is not necessarily difficult to cross a high wall. The Panmunjom Military Demarcation Line, which is only 5cm tall, is harder to cross than any other taller boundary. The act that took place beyond the low military demarcation line, which is difficult to cross, has itself operated as an inspirational performance. The spatial structure of Panmunjom may suppress changes in trends but also lead change with inspiration. 


1. C. Turner Joy, How Communists Negotiate, New York: Macmillan Company, 1955, p. 8.

2. James Munhang Lee, Panmunjom, Korea, Baltimore: American Literary Press, 2004, pp.167 – 168.

3. 이문항, 『JSA-판문점 (1953~1994)』, 소화, 2001, p.134. James Munhang Lee, JSA-Panmunjom (1953 – 1994), Sowha, 2001, p.134.

4. 김재한, 『365일 역사에서 배우는 세상을 바꾼 전략 36계』,아마존의 나비, 2016, pp.289~290.

Kim Chaehan, 36 World-Changing Strategies Learning from History for 365 Days, AmazoneNabi, 2016, pp.289 – 290.


Kim Chaehan has a B.A. in international relations from Seoul National University and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Rochester. He was selected as a National Fellow by the ROK Ministry of Education and by the Hoover Institution. He received the Ilsong Prize for his article published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. He was listed among most cited scholars in the KCI journals. Ten of his books were selected as Excellent by the National Academy of Sciences or by the Ministry of Culture, Korea. This research was supported by Hallym University Research Fund (HRF-201601-006).


 
 
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no.607 (2018.June) 
 
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