By Graham Earnshaw, Reuters
PANMUNJOM, August 3, Reuter – A dozen beefy, grim-faced U.S. and South Korean marines march up to one end of a blue hut straddling the border between North and South Korea and form a protective corridor for members of the United Nations Command.
At the other end of the hut, a squad of goose-stepping North Korean soldiers snap to attention as North Korean and Chinese delegates arrive.
The actors in one of the strangest dramas of the modern world gathered once again last week in this village in central Korea. It was the 438th meeting of the Korean Military Armistice Commission and the final act is still nowhere in sight.
The Korean War ended 34 years ago, but peace has never been declared and the world’s longest-running truce talks drag on. Communist North Korea and the capitalist South seem as far from an accommodation as ever.
The stakes are high, the dangers enormous — about one million soldiers still face each other across the Korean Demilitarised Zone and tensions occasionally run high.
But the Armistice Commission’s meetings in the blue hut in the Panmunjom truce village are now mostly marked by boredom.
The American-led United Nations Command and the North Korean People’s Army now get together perhaps two or three times a year to exchange accusations.
There is an eerie ritualistic quality to the sessions. The two sides don’t talk to each other, they talk at each other, delivering long speeches rendered even duller by being translated into three languages — Korean, English and Chinese.
On the northern side of the table sit four North Korean generals and one Chinese military officer. Facing them are an American rear-admiral, a Thai officer, a British brigadier and two South Korean generals.
Peering through the hut windows are reporters bussed in from the South’s capital of Seoul and Pyongyang in the North to record the proceedings for posterity.
The 438th gathering was a good indication of how little progress was made in the previous 437. The U.N. Command called the meeting to renew its demand that North Korea search for and return the remains of soldiers killed in the 1950-53 war.
A series of strange rules govern these meetings, worked out over the decades in an effort, often unsuccessful, to avoid violence.
Reporters from both sides wearing blue and green arm bands and commission officers with yellow armbands are allowed to walk past the blue hut, over the border into the other Korea and chat with their counterparts.
But security guards — 35 to each side — with red armbands and handguns are forbidden to cross the border under an agreement reached following an incident in 1976 when two U.S. officers were killed by North Korean guards wielding axes.
The agreement has been broken only once, in 1984 when a Soviet tourist guide sauntered up beside the blue hut and then bolted into South Korea.
The North Korean guards pulled out their guns and chased after him. Three people were killed in the shooting that followed, two North Korean guards and one from South Korea.
But the tour guide made it safely into the bushes to the south of the hut and requested political asylum in the United States.
Reporters from the South attending a meeting are required to sign a declaration stating that “in the event of an attempted abduction by the North Koreans of a press representative, it is most important that U.N. Command personnel are made aware of such an attempt if the abduction attempt is to be forestalled”.
The guards from both sides still stare at each other threateningly, fists tightly balled, but they no longer spit at their opposite numbers.
North Korea, however, protested at one meeting in 1982 that American soldiers had made unseemly gestures with their fingers at a group of North Korean visitors.
Then there are the many confrontations that have occurred inside the blue hut, not all of them verbal.
At one time, the two sides competed to place the tallest, most ornate flagstand on the conference table.
The race was finally ended with a special meeting of the commission at which both sides agreed to have table flags of the same height.
It is the custom that no senior member of either side leaves the blue hut during a meeting, even to go to the toilet.
But on one occasion in the early 1980s, the North Korean side launched into speeches lasting more than six hours, a session remembered as “The Battle of the Bladder”.
That gave rise to yet another meeting at which the U.N. Command and the North Korean People’s Army agreed to 20-minute recesses every three hours.
“It was one of the most humanitarian decisions the commission has ever reached,” said a U.N. Command official.