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Swiss help keep Korean peace

A South Korean soldier keeps watch over the demarcation line swissinfo.ch

Tensions still run high, and there are 1.4 million soldiers facing each other across the border. Despite this, the local "Swiss Camp" is a relatively peaceful place.

This content was published on January 28, 2008 - 13:38

swissinfo visits the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea to learn what it's like to be one of five Swiss army officers keeping watch on one of the world's political hotspots.

"We are entering the Joint Security Area (JSA). From now on, please follow my instructions scrupulously. Shooting can start at any time," says the soldier guiding us.

One of the main tasks of the foreign soldiers based in Panmunjom is to ensure that the 1953 armistice signed by the communist North and the westernised South is respected amid constant threats of war.

The JSA's 800 square metres are where the North and the South negotiated their armistice. It is also the only place where soldiers from both sides have any form of direct contact.

The last skirmish took place in 1984, but the atmosphere leaves little to the imagination. Down the middle of the DMZ, the military demarcation line serves as the border as long as a peace accord is not signed.

The huts where negotiations took place are further on. Behind them, bigger buildings face each other as well as watchtowers.

All along the line, soldiers from both sides face each other, staring silently at their "enemies". Sometimes, they are just 30 centimetres apart, ready to fight if someone crosses the border.

Observers and diplomats

"I don't feel vulnerable, but I have the utmost respect for this territory," says Major General Gerhard Brügger, commander of the Swiss mission in Panmunjom. "This is a real danger here and it shouldn't be underestimated."

Brügger and four other Swiss officers live and work with five Swedish colleagues just a few metres away from the JSA. For over 54 years Switzerland has been present as part of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC), set up after the armistice.

"As set out in the armistice, our role is to make sure the accord is respected," Brügger told swissinfo. "We are present, we exchange information, we write reports and we enter the JSA at least once a day, just to remind everyone there is an armistice."

The Swiss soldiers, who have carried no weapons since the late 1960s, are both observers and diplomats.

"Our presence is symbolic and only makes sense because we are here," admits Brügger, who took over the delegation three years ago. "It would make no sense if we were based in Seoul or in an office far away from the JSA."

Slice of heaven

The NNSC delegates live in a building on a hill near the demarcation line. It's quiet – almost idyllic, but anyone wishing to go for a walk is recommended to stay on clearly-marked paths, since anti-personnel mines lurk everywhere.

Major Markus Fischer, one of the Swiss observers, is enthusiastic about his lodgings, calling it a "slice of heaven."

"We live in the midst of natural surroundings, with excellent infrastructure and the busy city of Seoul just an hour's drive away," he adds. "Personally speaking, I'm very happy to be here."

Guests sleep in one of the huts, just ten metres from the world's tightest border. Outside, the orange lights pick out the raw wound that runs across the Korean peninsula, framed by fences and barbed wire.

There is little to hear, apart from the honking of wild geese hiding in the woods and the hum of generators. The feeling of peace is both tangible but also misleading.

When the NNSC began its work, it was thought that the mission was only temporary while a peace deal was worked out.

But 54 years later, no treaty has been signed even if both Koreas have begun a new round of talks. The Swiss mission has no idea when its work will be over.

"If we left there would be no change to security conditions in the DMZ, but a departure before the signature of a peace accord would send a negative political signal," says Brügger.

The Swiss general considers the NNSC a vital element of the armistice. If it were to be terminated, the armistice could collapse, leaving nothing to replace it, and opening the door for future conflict.

swissinfo, Marzio Pescia in Panmunjom

Korean armistice

The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, ending three years of war.

The South Korean government refused to sign, although it declared that it would not obstruct implementation of the pact. The Armistice Agreement and subsequent amending agreements established a number of mechanisms to maintain the truce.

These included a military demarcation line separating North and South Korea and a demilitarised zone on either side of the demarcation line, running the entire length of the Korean peninsula.

Other mechanisms are a Military Armistice Commission (MAC) located at the town of Panmunjom and tasked with investigating and resolving violations of the Armistice Agreement and a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, composed until 1993 of Poland, Sweden, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland.

The first Swiss mission brought 146 soldiers to Korea. Since 1994 it has been staffed by five officers.

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