PANMUNJOM, Korean demilitarized zone—Step out of the bus, walk across the courtyard, stop in front of the low-built, blue-painted buildings. Here, in the Joint Security Area—a neutral space between North and South Korea that’s been under U.N. jurisdiction since the 1953 armistice—is one of the world’s weirdest scenes. About 100 yards ahead, North Korean soldiers are watching from a balcony, expressionless: Walk toward them, and you’ve defected. Directly behind, equally expressionless South Korean soldiers in dark sunglasses stand with their arms at their sides, fists curled: If someone walks toward them, they may shoot.
No less odd a scene is played out inside the blue buildings, where a negotiating table has stood, for 50 years, exactly along the line that marks the border. On one side of the table, you are in the south; on the other, you are in the north. Most people step over the line for an uneasy minute just to see what it feels like “over there.” Then, spooked by the invisible border, they move back to the other side a bit too quickly. After this little ritual takes place, the American officer conducting the tour leads a longer excursion into the demilitarized zone. He points out “Freedom Village,” the superprofitable model village on the southern side (the villagers make a killing selling ginseng and don’t pay taxes), and “Propaganda Village” in the north (most of its shiny new buildings are empty).
He also points out the spot where, in 1976, North Korean soldiers attacked American soldiers who had gone into the northern reaches of the demilitarized zone to trim a tree and murdered two of them with an ax. Three days later, a U.S. infantry company accompanied by 20 utility helicopters, seven Cobra attack helicopters, and B-52 bombers backed up by an aircraft carrier swept in and cut down the tree. Very quickly, it becomes clear that Panmunjom, with its odd rituals and strange traditions, is not just a cliché but a piece of 1950s Cold War kitsch, a weird time warp as surreal as North Korea itself.
This isn’t a new revelation, of course; Panmunjom has been a monument to the creepiness of North Korea for more than five decades. But in a week when tensions between North Korea and South Korea appear to be at a boiling point, it’s worth focusing again on the strange, ritualistic nature of the relationship between North Korea and the outside world.
For the record, North Korea has sold missile technology to Syria and Libya, has assassinated diplomats, and has kidnapped Japanese and South Korean citizens and refuses to give a full accounting of their fate. North Korea also keeps untold numbers of its own citizens in concentration camps, which are direct copies of those built by Stalin, and knowingly starves many of its citizens to death as well. By any normal definition, North Korea is still a “terrorist” state, and everyone knows it. The administration’s decision was thus not a recognition of any change in North Korean behavior. It was, rather, a negotiated exchange of one set of words for another: We withdraw terrorist—and, in exchange, they offer a “promise,” once again, to dismantle their nuclear facilities. Ritual favors were bestowed as well: Presumably as a sign of the respect in which they hold him, the U.S. official negotiating these terms was, on his last visit to the north, ceremonially allowed to travel by car through Panmunjom instead of being forced to fly in from Beijing.
There may, of course, eventually be more “real” elements to the deal. There is probably more aid money in the offing, though no one really believes it will go to those who are once again starving. There is talk of more advanced verification systems as well, though it’s widely assumed the North Koreans will again try to cheat. Still, how this White House, which so long opposed any negotiations with North Korea, rationalizes these talks to itself is anyone’s guess. Perhaps this is some kind of holding pattern. Maybe they think the almost-invisible dictator, Kim Jong-il, is really dead. Or maybe they fear that Pyongyang will otherwise detonate another surprise nuclear device on, say, the day of the U.S. elections.
What this cannot possibly be is a genuine negotiation, by which I mean one whose ultimate outcome will be the actual dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program or the actual warming of relations between north and south. Such a negotiation, based on genuine trust, real verification procedures, and actual cooperation is possible only with a regime that understands the concept of trust, procedures, and cooperation—a regime, in other words, very different from the one currently in power—in whatever terms it is officially defined.