At Panmunjom truce village, it's a quiet life for Swedish and Swiss soldiers

For the five Swedes and five Swiss who are Panmunjom's only full-time residents, the serene surroundings give no hint of border tensions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 June, 2014, 1:37am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 June, 2014, 4:12am

Surrounded by the minefields, artillery emplacements and fortifications of the world's most militarised frontier, the truce village of Panmunjom squats in the very centre of Korea's Demilitarised Zone.

Its three blue-painted huts straddling the border, beyond which South and North Korean sentries stand glaring at each other, are international news icons, illustrating reports whenever tensions flare on the flashpoint peninsula.

To its south, the US-South Korean Camp Bonifas - with bunkers guarding its baseball diamond and its one-hole golf course surrounded on three sides by minefields - sports a sign proudly emblazoned "In Front Of Them All". But in front of Bonifas, Panmunjom's only permanent residents - five Swedish and five Swiss soldiers of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, or NNSC - say they feel little threat, even though they live inside the DMZ.

"It looks very peaceful, very quiet, there is good air and everything," said Swiss General Urs Gerber. "But at the same time, you are a few metres away from a country that is technically at war."

The Swedish-Swiss camp adjacent to the truce village is serene: clutches of bungalows in quiet woodland, complete with dining facilities, two cosy bars and a gym.

"With all the birdsong and nice weather, it's very easy to forget that 50 metres away is a fence, and two kilometres north, you have 13,200 artillery pieces and a forward-deployed army," said Swedish General Berndt Grundevik.

The NNSC does maintain a bunker, filled with emergency rations and medical gear. But though it runs drills to evacuate "at a minute's notice", it has never been used. No NNSC member is armed; one says he does not even lock his bungalow at night.

The 1950-53 Korean war ended with a truce, rather than a peace agreement; the NSCC was formed to oversee the armistice. The Swedes and Swiss monitored it on the southern side of the border; Czech and Polish delegations did the same on the north.

But following the collapse of European communism, North Korea expelled the Czechs and Poles and the commission ceased to operate in the North in 1995. Today's Swedish and Swiss contingents oversee the armistice in conjunction with the UN Command.

They audit exercises, inspect DMZ positions and investigate armistice violations, such as shooting incidents. They interview North Koreans who accidentally arrive in South Korea - such as fishermen washed ashore - before they are repatriated, and have responsibility for one of the three conference huts where inter-Korean discussions occur.

But they have zero communication with the North Koreans: They only oversee the armistice in the South.

However, while Gerber admits his command is "toothless", he insists that the NNSC is no rubber stamp.

Both Gerber and Grundevik said that when they advise South Korean commanders to remove certain facilities, equipment or positions from the DMZ, discussions can be "problematic": the Southerners argue that nobody oversees the North.

For that, Grundevik has a reply. "We say, 'If we have agreement at least on the southern side, that contributes to peace and stability', " he said. Or, as Swiss Colonel Christian Jorgensen puts it: "Every day nobody is killed by a weapon - that's a successful day."