It is the most bizarre corner of one of the most bizarre places in East Asia: A tranquil little chunk of Western Europe sitting betwixt armies which, if they ever go to war, could very well ignite Armageddon across Asia.
Welcome to the quiet, wooded compound of the Swedish and Swiss soldiers who form the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, or NNSC.
Their camp sits bucolically in the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom – itself dead in the middle of the DMZ, between the 1.1 million strong army of North Korea and the 650,000 strong South Korean armed forces, together with the latter’s 28,500 US allies.
‘In the eye of the hurricane’
The NNSC personnel are the only permanent residents of Panmunjom: The grim-faced North and South Korean sentries who are endlessly captured in TV footage of the iconic village rotate in and out from their bases north and south of the DMZ. The ten-man NNSC team – five Swedes, five Swiss – maintains a 24/7 presence in Panmunjom.
In fact, they are also the only permanent residents of the entire 248-km long DMZ, which stretches across the waist of the Korean Peninsula. Bar the NNSC camp, there are no living quarters in the four-kilometer wide zone, with the inter-Korean border running down its middle: Only guard posts and observation posts for infantry.
Given that the DMZ is routinely described in news reports as “tense,” “a flashpoint” or a “powder keg,” the paradox of their situation is not lost on the peacekeepers.
“It is special to be here: We are in the middle of probably the biggest military concentration on the planet, and we are in the middle of a ceasefire – it’s impressive!” said Swiss Major General Patrick Gauchat. “To be part of it…well, we are military, and you don’t see this anywhere else.”
“We are in the eye of the hurricane,” added Swiss Colonel Beat Klingelfuss. “But it is very calm in the eye of a hurricane.”
The village-like compound, in the southern sector of Panmunjom. Complete with red-painted, chalet-style officer quarters, bar/messes, a tennis court and gym, it is set in the shade of cool pines to one side of the more famous zone of the truce village: The sky-blue truce huts of Conference Row. The MDL (Military Demarcation Line) – the actual border between the two Koreas – is just meters away from the Swedish and Swiss accommodation.
However, the razor-wire topped fence around the camp does not demarcate the border, nor is it designed to keep out human intruders; its purpose is to keep out wildlife. The DMZ is home to bears, wild cats and the famous “three-legged boars” – wild pigs which have lost limbs to the area’s landmines.
“The first time I came here, a Swedish general said to me, ‘Here is your house, there’s no lock on the door – if anyone wants to come in, they will!’” said Swedish Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad. “Time stands still here. We just have to beware of the snakes and the malarial mosquitoes.”
Indeed: When the NNSC opened up their underground bunker this spring to give it an airing, they found it overrun with tiger snakes. Grenstad is not too bothered; the bunker, he said, would not withstand shellfire anyway. And the score so far is peacekeepers one, serpents nil. A bottle of tiger snake spirit stands in their mess; new arrivals to the NNSC knock back a glass in a unit bonding ritual.
“The camp is so peaceful, it’s heaven,” said Gauchat. “They say they will conserve the DMZ as a botanical or zoological park … nature here is still untouched.”
A new détente is in the air. Previously, the NNSC troops were collateral victims of the propaganda war, with both sides blaring messages at each other. But after last month’s inter-Korean summit, both sides shut down their speakers “We can hear birds now,” said Grenstad. “We did not hear them for a couple of years.”
The propaganda included broadcasts slamming each other’s systems. With the North accusing the South of lying, the South started broadcasting weather forecasts, to prove the veracity of their material. Music was also on the program: K-pop from the South, opera and folk from the North. “With the opera, it was easier to fall asleep,” Grenstad laughed.
The NNSC’s footbridge, which crosses marshy terrain from their compound to Panmunjom’s main complex, is now world famous: Here, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sat during their face-to-face summit chat. Gauchat confided that the bridge was widened and repainted, and an additional leg with seating was added, just prior to the summit.
However, the team did not watch the summit from the fence. “We could see them over there,” said Major Patrick Andres, nodding out of the window of the Swiss Mess – the bridge is about 100 meters away – “but there was a better close-up view there” he said – nodding at the TV.
Overseeing the Armistice
The team, established together with the Military Armistice Commission, or MAC, has a unique mission. It oversees the terms of the 1953 ceasefire, monitoring troop strengths and weapons. It also observes inspections of armistice violations, and military exercises. (While the team overviewed the recent “Key Resolve” exercises, they were not party to the “Max Thunder” aerial drills which North Korean state media complained about.)
However, while their weekly, “doors-open” meetings in the NNSC truce hut straddling the border at Conference Row are open to both sides, the Swedes and Swiss only operate on South Korea soil.
Their counterparts in the North were Czech and Polish. Following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, North Korea ceased viewing them as neutral. The Czechs withdrew in 1993; the Poles in 1995. However, the old Czech-Polish camp, complete with swimming pool, still exists on the other side of Panmunjom.
Polish officers now play a role in the South, holding quarterly meetings with the Swedish and Swiss, and attaching their signatures to official documents. Czechoslovakia, having split into two separate states, is no longer part of the NNSC.
Peace prospects positive – but trust building more critical than paper signing
The prospects for a lasting Korean peace now appear better, perhaps, than ever before.
Unlike the South Korean presidents who attended the 2000 and 2007 previous inter-Korean summits, Moon is still early in his term, and is hugely popular with voters. The upcoming North Korea-US summit will be the first ever and US President Donald Trump has invested massive political capital in it, while Kim, with his arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles, has a solid bargaining position. Moreover, denuclearization has the support of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the regional power broker who has established cordial personal relations with both Kim and Trump.
From Panmunjom, the veteran peacekeepers are keeping a close watch.
“I am optimistic but I am realistic: All previous tries have ended with the same result,” said Grensted. “I am hopeful, but the track record is not the best.”
“I am really positive on the alignment of the stars, it is really interesting now,” Gauchat said. He noted that the sanctions affecting North Korea “…are the toughest UN sanctions, ever, and the US can keep them going forever.” (A UN Security Council resolution would be required to alter them – which the US can veto.)
“In my point of view, something may happen,” Gauchat continued. “Koreans are emotive and fast moving people, they work hard. We are in a honeymoon now. We will face some reality, but it will take a little bit of time.”
There are currently rumors that Xi could appear in Singapore at the Kim-Trump summit in June, bringing the three 1953 armistice signatories together. (Seoul did not sign the 1953 armistice. Then-President Rhee Syngman was furious that the war ended with Korea divided.)
“It is reported that Singapore could be the first time the three armistice signatories have been in the same place, but if you talk about stopping the armistice, that would leave South Korea out of it,” Gauchat said. “I think that is the wrong venue.”
While the signing of a peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War would make a grand photo opp, what substantive difference it would make to the peninsula’s situation is unclear: After all, the armistice has – largely – held for 65 years. Moreover, the United States, one of the signatories, has threatened military action against Pyongyang’s strategic weapons.
“If you sign a peace treaty and don’t have denuclearization, do you declare war again?” Gauchat, who thinks a substantive treaty might be feasible in 2-3 years, asked. “The logic is denuclearization – then sign a peace treaty.”
“All sides want a political win, but the speed may be a little too fast – if you go too fact, you may derail, so I hope they keep it on track,” added Grenstad. “A treaty can be signed in one year – but what is in the treaty? There has to be a roadmap, there has to be a confidence-building process.”
Noting that the two Koreas have decades of enmity to overcome, the admiral added, “They have the same culture, but totally different systems. President Moon can have a peace treaty this year, but what does a peace treaty have in it?”
Both Gauchat and Grenstad made clear the central importance of trust-building moves, together with a clear, concrete roadmap, rather than vague statements.
“What is the roadmap after the summit? Where are the timelines?” asked Grenstad. “Now it’s, ‘Let’s make a deal!’ – but nobody knows what the deal is about.”
“Trust is not just military, it is about economic help, cultural exchanges and more open- door visits by political, economic and sports leaders,” Gauchat said. “You start with small agreements and build on them.”
Regardless of a peace treaty, a peace regime and denuclearization, no prospect of reunification is on the horizon. So, whatever is agreed or signed between related parties, there will still be two Koreas, two armies, and the DMZ separating them. This suggests that peacekeepers will continue to be needed in Korea.
A neutral body would almost certainly be required to oversee and verify, for example, a withdrawal of military posts and weapons from the DMZ. Gauchat suggests that the NNSC could extend its services to the North Korean army: NNSC officials could observe North Korean exercises, for example, and Northern officers could be invited to observe South Korean-US drills.
“If they want bilateral, it is even better, but when they need a neutral point of view, we are available,” said Gauchat. “If they can do it without us – even better! If they can, we would be the happiest jobless people in the world. Peacekeepers want peace; we do not want to be here forever.”