South Korean side facility “Peace House in Paju City, Panmunjom, on April 18, 2018. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun
South Korean side facility “Peace House in Paju City, Panmunjom, on April 18, 2018. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

United States President Donald Trump is leaning toward the iconic and highly symbolic truce village of Panmunjom as the site for his upcoming summit with Kim Jong-un.

On Monday Trump, speaking at a televised press conference on the White House lawn, said: “We are looking at various countries including Singapore, and also talking about the possibility of the DMZ … something I thought was intriguing … there is something I like about it because you are ‘there,’ you are actually there. If things work out, there is a great celebration to be had.”

Trump revealed that he had talked about the location in his post-summit telephone call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Previously, Trump said the location had been whittled down to two countries, one of which was Singapore.

While the date of his summit with Kim – the first meeting ever between a sitting US president and North Korean leaders – is not yet set, it is expected to take place in late May or early June. The success of last Friday’s inter-Korean summit set the stage for the meeting to take place.

Various locations have been put forward: Ulan Bator, Mongolia, which has good relations with North Korean and is reachable by Kim’s train; Singapore; Stockholm, Sweden, and Geneva, Switzerland – the latter location being the site of part of Kim’s education.

None of these, however, could match the irresistible optics that Panmunjom – one of the most iconic locations in Asia, set in the very middle of the Demilitarized Zone – offers. Panmunjom is the village in the Joint Security Area, or JSA, the only part of the 248km-wide DMZ where troops and officials from North and South interact physically and verbally.

Given that the United Nations Command Security Battalion-Joint Security Area is a combined South Korea-US force, US troops would likely also be present, a plus for Trump. If an honor guard is present, it will most likely be the UN Honor Guard, a Seoul-based ceremonial unit comprising South Korean, US, Filipino and Thai soldiers.

Moreover, Panmunjom would be easy for Kim – who may have inherited his father’s dislike of air transport, preferring, instead, a private train for international travel and in this case a limo to the border. Questions also hang over the range of his fleet of aircraft.

It would also necessitate Trump arriving and leaving from South Korea, permitting him to coordinate with President Moon, pre- and/or-post-summit. Experts see policy synchronicity between Seoul and Washington as vital when dealing with North Korea.

“That is where I thought it would be all along, as it is hard for Kim to go somewhere else, and I think Trump liked the choreography he saw last week,” said Steve Tharp, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel, a resident of Seoul and a former Panmunjom negotiator. “It is probably more appropriate for Trump to be there than President Moon, as that area is under the control of the United Nations Command that works for the President of the United States.”

The UN Command is the military command established in 1950, under UN leadership, to incorporate free world troops fighting on the South’s side in the Korean War.

Panmunjom stands in the JSA. It was established in September 1953 for discussion of armistice-related issues. The armistice that ended the Korean War came into effect at midnight on July 27, 1953. Since 1972, Panmunjom has also been the main site for North-South dialogue; various telephone hotlines between the two Koreas run through the area.

Trump may be the first US president to meet a North Korean leader, but will not be the first to visit Panmunjom. Bill Clinton, and more recently US Vice President Mike Pence, have both visited the iconic location. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and Barack Obama have visited observation posts in the DMZ, but not Panmunjom itself.

It is also very close to the North Korean city of Kaesong, which stands just north of the DMZ and which is the site of the inter-Korean liaison office which last Friday’s Panmunjom Declarations calls to be established.

An inter-Korean industrial park, the Kaesong Industrial Complex, stands outside the city. The site, which married North Korean labor with South Korean capital and management, was shuttered in 2016 by the South amid inter-Korean tensions.