There is very little space separating the two Koreas at Panmunjom, the most heavily armed border in the world. People have stepped across the narrow dividing line, but only at very special times. The two nations are still technically at war.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did it in 2019. A year earlier, former South Korean President Moon Jae-in walked with Kim across the border. In 2017, a defecting North Korean soldier went across nearby, under heavy gunfire. He was racing across the border for safety.
And this week, an American soldier facing possible military discipline went over the line. It caused an international incident that could worsen already uneasy relations on the Korean Peninsula.
Much of the 4-kilometer-wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is forest, guarded by mines, barbed wire fences and tank traps. Combat troops stand on both sides. The DMZ is jointly overseen by the American-led U.N. Command and by North Korea.
But Panmunjom is different. It was once a small farming village inside the DMZ. Now, it hosts a “Joint Security Area.” And it has become one of the world’s strangest tourist sites.
The Korean Peninsula was split into a Soviet-controlled North and U.S.-supported South at the end of World War II. It was in Panmunjom that U.S. and North Korean forces signed the 1953 truce that ended fighting in the Korean War. The truce also led to the creation of the DMZ.
There has never been an official peace treaty.
In Panmunjom, there are stores, fast-food restaurants and lots of tourists. But North Korea has been closed to tourism because of the pandemic since early 2020. The South Korean side has an amusement park not far from the village. It used to have a Popeyes fried chicken restaurant.
Tours to the southern side drew around 100,000 visitors a year before the pandemic.
The tourist area is a short drive from Seoul. The South Korean capital lies in an easy striking range of 70 percent of North Korea's 1.2 million troop positioned along the border.
Months and years often pass without incident. But when something happens, it can be violent.
In 1976, North Korean soldiers killed two American army officers with axes. The U.S. reacted by flying nuclear bombers toward the DMZ in an attempt to frighten the North.
In 1984, North Korean and U.N. Command soldiers fired shots when a Soviet citizen defected by running to the southern side. Three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldier were killed.
North Koreans who flee to the South have mostly used the less guarded border between the North and China. An estimated 30,000 North Koreans have escaped since the end of the Korean War.
The American detained on Tuesday was 23-year-old Private 2nd Class Travis King. He is the first known American detained in the North in nearly five years. He was captured after running across the border at Panmunjom.
King had served nearly two months in a South Korean prison on assault charges. He was supposed to be sent Monday to Fort Bliss, Texas. There, he was to face more military disciplinary measures and a possible release from service. But officials said that instead of getting on the plane, he left the airport and joined a tour of Panmunjom.
I’m Caty Weaver.
Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting from The Associated Press.
Words in This Story
defect — v. a problem or fault that makes someone or something not perfect
discipline — n. control that is gained by requiring that rules or orders be obeyed and punishing bad behavior
barbed — adj. having a sharp point that sticks out and backward from a larger point
tourist — n. a person who travels to a place for pleasure
amusement park — n. a place that has many games and rides for entertainment
tour — n. a journey through the different parts of a country, region, etc.
assault — n. the crime of trying or threatening to hurt someone physically