Dozens of South Korean soldiers visited former front-line North Korean guard posts on Wednesday to verify their recent removal as part of warming diplomacy by the rival Koreas while U.S.-North Korea nuclear disarmament efforts remain stalled.
The two Koreas have each dismantled or disarmed 11 of their guard posts inside the Demilitarized Zone that forms their 248-kilometer (155-mile) -long, 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) -wide border. The removals will leave South Korea with about 50 other DMZ posts and North Korea with 150, according to defense experts in South Korea.
A small group of journalists was allowed to enter the zone to watch a South Korean team leave for a North Korean guard post on Wednesday morning to verify its destruction. North Korean teams were also going to verify the work on the South Korean side of the zone later Wednesday.
Seven helmeted South Korean soldiers wearing backpacks, one carrying a camera and another a camcorder, approached the line separating the north and south sides of the DMZ. North Korean troops then walked in a row down a hill to meet them. The soldiers from the rival Koreas exchanged handshakes before moving up the hill together to go to the dismantled North Korean guard post.
Other groups of South Korean soldiers were simultaneously visiting 10 other North Korean guard posts. They inspected whether the guard posts and any underground structures have been completely dismantled and whether all troops, weapons and other equipment have been withdrawn, according to Seoul’s Defense Ministry.
The Demilitarized Zone was originally created as a safeguard between the countries at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. But contrary to its name, the DMZ has become the world’s most heavily fortified frontier after the rival Koreas planted an estimated 2 million mines, deployed combat troops and heavy weapons and set up layers of barbed wire fences.
When the leaders of the Koreas met in Pyongyang in September, they agreed to lower military tensions along their border, including the withdrawal of some DMZ guard posts, halting live-fire exercises near the border, demilitarizing their shared border village of Panmunjom and removing mines at a DMZ area to launch joint searches for Korean War dead.
Conservatives in South Korea have criticized the deals, saying Seoul should not have agreed to such conventional arms reduction programs because North Korea’s nuclear threat remains unchanged.
U.S.-led nuclear diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear program has reported little progress since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump met for a summit in Singapore in June. North Korea has made an unclear disarmament pledge, and some experts say the North’s turn to diplomacy after last year’s string of weapons tests is aimed to weaken U.S.-led sanctions.