Civilian tours to the truce village of Panmunjom resumed on November 6, after more than a year of suspension due to the African swine fever and COVID-19 outbreaks. The application system has now been unified under a single website operated by the Ministry of Unification and the application process has been simplified.
In today’s installment of Inside North Korea, we’ll learn about the history and significance of Panmunjom. Let’s hear from Dr. Bong Young-shik from the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.
After assuming his post, South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young expressed his hope to pave the way for inter-Korean cooperation in a creative fashion, starting with something small.
As part of the drive, the Unification Ministry said last month that it would resume tours to Panmunjom on November 6. Pilot tours involving 80 people took place on November 4.
Formerly, those hoping to visit Panmunjom could apply for tours through the Ministry of Unification, the Ministry of National Defense or the National Intelligence Service. But the application system has now been unified under the Unification Ministry’s new tourism support center. Previously, applications should be made at least 60 days in advance, but now, visitors may apply just two weeks ahead of time. The ministry has also lowered the age eligible for the tour program from ten to eight. In the past, only group tours consisting of 30 to 40 people were allowed to visit the area. But would-be visitors can now apply for the tours on an individual or family basis so that many more people may tour the truce village more easily.
In fact, Panmunjom is not the original name of this border village. Its former name was “Neolmun-ri tavern village.” Neolmun means “wooden door” and ri stands for an administrative unit of the village. The farm village in northwestern Gyeonggi Province was called that way because it had houses with wooden doors and a bridge a long time ago. But why did the name of this village change?
During the Korean War, preliminary talks for the armistice began in northern Gaeseong on July 8, 1951. Twenty rounds of negotiations were held there until the U.N. Command proposed that they move the meeting venue, citing the danger of frequent military activities of the North Korean troops nearby. The North Korean side suggested a new meeting place in the nearby Neolmun-ri village known for its tavern. So, the negotiations resumed at a tent in the village on October 22, 1951. The talks involved the U.S.-led U.N. Command and the North Korean and Chinese militaries. To make it easier for Chinese representatives to find the new location, the village name was written in the Chinese characters on a sign.
The Chinese characters for the “Neolmun-ri tavern” were pronounced Panmunjom, with pan, mun, and jom meaning “wooden board,” “door” and “tavern,” respectively.
Also, a bridge inside the truce village was originally called Neolmun Bridge. But after the Korean War armistice was signed in July 1953, this bridge crossing the military demarcation line was renamed, “The Bridge of No Return.” It was used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the war. A final ultimatum was given to prisoners of war before their repatriation, as they would never be able to return once they cross the bridge. That’s why the bridge got this name.
At first, the Panmunjom meeting place was nothing but a shabby structure where a tent was set up. As the ceasefire was drawn out, temporary, attached buildings there, including the conference buildings of the Military Armistice Commission and the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission conference room became permanent facilities.
Concrete buildings such as the Freedom House and Panmungak were built inside Panmumjon in 1965 and 1969, respectively. As South and North Korea engaged in more talks in the 1980s, the Peace House was built on the southern side of the village, while Tongilgak was constructed on the northern side.
The Freedom House stands opposite to its North Korean counterpart Panmungak. Between the two buildings, blue conference buildings of the Military Armistice Commission lie in the central part of the Joint Security Area. On the southern side, the Peace House is located about 100 meters from the Freedom House. On the northern side, Tongilgak stands 100 meters away from Pamnungak.
Speaking of South Korean-controlled buildings, the Freedom House, which used to handle South-North liaisons, was renovated on July 9, 1998.
The three-story Peace House accommodates a press room and a small conference room on the first floor. The second floor has meetings rooms and a waiting room, while the third floor houses a large meeting hall and other rooms. The Peace House was the very location where the inter-Korean summit was held in April 2018.
Today, South and North Korean guards standing face-to-face symbolize the Joint Security Area of JSA of Panmunjom inside the Demilitarized Zone. But that was not the case in the past. The armistice agreement was signed in July 1953, but there was no clear border line within Panmunjom. People from each side freely moved around the area. Soldiers from the two sides had conversations with each other and even took photos together. But the mood completely changed when a brutal incident occurred there in 1976.
In 1976, ax-wielding North Korean soldiers killed two American officers sent out to trim a tree at Panmunjom. After the notorious “ax murder incident,” the Bridge of No Return was closed and a military demarcation line was drawn within the JSA. A concrete slab that is 50 centimeters wide and 5 centimeters high was installed to mark the line and prevent possible clashes.
Panmunjom has sometimes revealed hostility between the two Koreas. But it has also been used as the venue for inter-Korean talks. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held their first summit at the Peace House in Panmunjom on April 27, 2018. A month later, on May 26, they held their second summit for two hours at Tongilgak in the same truce village. The scenes of the two inter-Korean summit talks in Panmunjom remain as a warm memory for many South Koreans.
I still vividly remember the Moon-Kim summit in April 2018. Kim Jong-un came out of Panmungak and walked toward the military demarcation line, wearing a bright smile on his face. After Kim walked over the line, he unexpectedly invited Moon to briefly cross the border to the North Korean side. So, the two leaders cross the border together into North Korea and returned to the southern side. Indeed, the memorable scene symbolized cross-border reconciliation and cooperation.
On August 20, 1971, Red Cross societies from both sides made their first contact in Panmunjom. The two Koreas held their preliminary Red Cross talks there on September 20 that year. On August 15, 1989, South Korean college student Lim Su-kyung and Catholic priest Moon Kyu-hyun returned to South Korea via Panmunjom after an unauthorized visit to North Korea. In 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter crossed the inter-Korean border into North Korea through Panmunjom. And the late Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju-yung traveled through Panmunjom to North Korea in June and October in 1998 to donate 1,001 cattle to the North. The number 1,001 reflected his hope that cross-border exchanges would not end there but begin again so inter-Korean cooperation would continue.
Tours to Panmunjom resumed this month. With the application process simplified and the scope of visitors eligible for tours expanded, many more people are expected to visit this spot, the symbol of peace. Here’s hoping that the truce village will be the cornerstone of free travel between the two Koreas, as agreed upon at the Panmunjom Declaration and an inter-Korean military agreement.