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[2018 Inter-Korean summit] Will DMZ return to original state?

Following the historic inter-Korean summit on Friday, expectations are high that the two Koreas’ militaries will speed up their efforts to return the heavily fortified demilitarized zone to its original state.

President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un agreed to “demilitarize” the DMZ by suspending propaganda broadcasts on loudspeakers and the sending of propaganda leaflets toward each other’s territories.

Under the armistice agreement, the two Koreas are prohibited from military activities deemed hostile to each other. But the two Koreas have increased their military presence and sometimes engaged in cross-border provocations.

“In accordance with the armistice agreement, if the two Koreas pulled their troops 2 kilometers away from the demilitarized zone, I think it would be a significant measure to reduce the likelihood of accidental clashes,” Cheong Wa Dae said.

North Korean village across the DMZ. (Park Hyun-koo / The Korea Herald)
North Korean village across the DMZ. (Park Hyun-koo / The Korea Herald)
The government has indicated it will discuss a plan to scale down military presence inside the DMZ, but the prospect of implementation remains to be seen, as it requires coordination with the United Nations Command.

Led by the United States, the UNC is in charge of overseeing the South Korean territory inside the DMZ. One of its missions is to inspect cross-border skirmishes, such as exchanges of artillery fire in 2015 over South Korea’s broadcast of propaganda messages via loudspeakers.

“There are so many things to consider about arms control,” said Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “For one thing, Seoul is much closer to the DMZ than Pyongyang.”

Seoul is located about 50 kilometers south of the Joint Security Area inside the DMZ and within the range of long-range artillery units along the border. Pyongyang, on the hand, is located about 150 kilometers north of the DMZ.

Considering the complexity surrounding military issues, nonmilitary measures are likely to be achieved more easily between the two Koreas as they have been discussed during previous summits and other high-level meetings.

Among the considered plans could be the establishment of a joint park inside the DMZ, an idea which was pursued during the previous Park Geun-hye administration. The two Koreas might also discuss a plan for conducting joint rescue efforts in the event of a wildfire inside the DMZ.

“If there are incidents inside the DMZ, like a wildfire, there are complicated procedures for the two Koreas to resolve them. Addressing the issue will be a good starting point,” said a former South Korean military officer who served at the UNC.

Through a series of high-level official meetings in the early 1990s, the two Koreas agreed on the “peaceful use” of the DMZ by achieving the disarmament of the border area. But the plan failed to be put in place.

Following the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, the two Koreas’ militaries agreed to remove landmines scattered inside the western and eastern parts of DMZ in order to build railways connecting the two Koreas.

“We have experience demilitarizing the DMZ to pave the roads along the West and East Sea. I don’t think it is an impossible thing to do,” a senior defense official told reporters last week under the customary condition of anonymity.

By Yeo Jun-suk (