An armistice agreement designed to last a few months has kept the peace on the Korean peninsula for the last 65 years – with New Zealand involved from the start. Sam Sachdeva visited the Korean demilitarised zone to talk to Kiwi personnel about how peace talks between the North and the South has changed their jobs, and the potential pitfalls lying in wait.

Driving north out of Seoul, it’s not long until you see the signs of a war that has never officially ended.

The white and purple flowers dotting sections of road alongside the Han River are overshadowed by the barbed wire, intimidating fences and camouflaged soldiers standing guard for any sign of an attack.

Heading closer to the border between South Korea and North Korea, tour buses and other vehicles have to weave between black and yellow fences and concrete barriers protected by stern-faced soldiers.

Reach the Joint Security Area (JSA) and there is a striking, almost eerie calm: tourists snap photos while South Korean soldiers stand guard half-covered by the blue buildings built to host diplomatic talks between the two Koreas.

This is just a small section of the 245-kilometre long, four-kilometre buffer between the two countries established in a 1953 armistice agreement – better known as the demilitarised zone, or DMZ for short.

New Zealand has a long history when it comes to Korea: as one of the first countries to respond to a United Nations call for support at the start of the Korean War, about 6000 Kiwis served during the conflict.

While the battle froze due to a ceasefire, the country’s involvement did not.

Flight Lieutenant Amy Wenden-Richardson and Lieutenant Colonel Shane Ruane’s stint in South Korea has coincided with a growing push for peace between the North and the South. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Flight Lieutenant Amy Wenden-Richardson and Lieutenant Colonel Shane Ruane are among the six NZ Defence Force personnel deployed to the United Nations Command in South Korea.

Both are quick to dispel any misconception of their role here: with the armistice a ceasefire agreement between military commanders, not a peace deal between states, they and the other members of the UN Command are not peacekeepers but “belligerents”.

As an armistice education officer, Ruane has travelled the full length of the DMZ speaking to infantry divisions, military education universities and officer schools about soldiers’ obligations under the armistice agreement.

The document itself is relatively simple, he says, adapting over time with agreement between both sides while being broad enough in “letter and spirit” to discourage the finding of legalistic loopholes.

“It might not actually be written down that you can’t fly your unmanned aerial vehicle across the demilitarised zone, but the intent is there – you will respect the airspace, the land area and the water set up by the armistice agreement.”

Compliance with the document on the southern side is crucial, he says, providing legitimacy to the ceasefire and deterring any hostilities from the North or the South.

As an assistant joint duty officer, Wenden-Richardson helps to maintain communication between both sides, while also hosting, educating and controlling safety and access for dignitaries who visit the JSA.

While Ruane is based at Camp Humphreys near Seoul, Wenden-Richardson is on the frontlines but says she has never felt unsafe – something which may be a function of her timely arrival.

A growing push for peace

The pair’s six-month rotation started in May, on the heels of a historic summit between the North and the South which led to a pledge to move towards a full peace treaty.

With two more inter-Korean summits since, as well as a June meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and US President Donald Trump, the pace of change has been staggering.

A small portion of the estimated two million landmines sprinkled throughout the DMZ are being dug up, with the goal of allowing JSA visitors to move freely between the North and the South during tours.

At the time of the visit, preparations were underway for a drawdown of the armed guards in the JSA: their weapons have now been taken away, with the possibility that in future the Korean government, not the military, will conduct tours.

“There is a degree of optimism which probably wasn’t there before,” Ruane says, mentioning the changed tone of questions from the soldiers he is educating.

“[He asked] what does it mean to us, are we still going to have a mission? It was like, ‘Oh dude, hang on, we don’t know’.”

Previously, armistice educators were asked about alleged violations from the North Koreans and why there wasn’t a harder line taken against them.

Now, he and others are quizzed about what a peace treaty will mean for troops on the frontline, with one South Korean soldier catching them on the hop with news that some observation posts in the DMZ would be gradually withdrawn.

“We hadn’t even seen it because we’d been on the road, and we got a question from one of the guys who got it straight of his smartphone…

“[He asked] what does it mean to us, are we still going to have a mission? It was like, ‘Oh dude, hang on, we don’t know’.”

South Korea’s direct line to the North at the DMZ wasn’t answered for four years, until a Kiwi became the first person to break that duck. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Then there was the opportunity to play a role, however small, in Korean history.

Part of the joint duty officers’ role is facilitating communication between the two sides – a task complicated by the North Koreans’ refusal to pick up the phone for the last four years, which meant they had to physically shout the message across.

Wenden-Richardson became the first person to break that dry spell, when the North Koreans took her call about a proposed repatriation meeting – even if the result was somewhat anticlimactic.

“Because it was all sort of short notice, they didn’t have an English-speaking person up north side, so I answered the phone but had to hand it straight to the translator anyway…the end of that message was we’re not coming today, you might as well leave.”

It’s a stark contrast to what some have experienced in the past, with one of Ruane’s predecessors fielding semi-panicked calls from New Zealand as Pyongyang carried out its missile testing.

[They asked], they’re doing all these missile tests, is it safe, has the situation changed? He goes, ‘Well I’m looking out the window and they’re mowing the lawn’ – but it was tense, and there was a lot more tension between the sides.”

“Anybody that thinks there’s going to be a peace treaty by Christmas is dreaming, because it just wouldn’t occur, it wouldn’t be strong enough – they could, they could sign it but it would never survive.”

That sense of history in the making means both have mixed feelings about returning to New Zealand, despite the chance to be reunited with their families.

“I’m really looking forward to going home and things here are uncertain and somewhat chaotic so that’ll be nice to leave behind,” Wenden-Richardson says, “but at the same time we’re really talking history: 65 years this has been ongoing and it would be cool to be a big part of what’s happening.”

Despite that, Ruane sounds a note of caution about any swift signing of a peace treaty, given the work that still needs to be done.

“Anybody that thinks there’s going to be a peace treaty by Christmas is dreaming, because it just wouldn’t occur, it wouldn’t be strong enough – they could, they could sign it but it would never survive.”

The pace of political talks is already causing some complications, he says, with bilateral agreements between the North and the South leaving the UN Command out of the loop.

A South Korean soldier stands guard inside the Joint Security Area. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

“While in and of itself it’s fine, it’s a positive move…the risk is the UNC side will end up having a major violation of the armistice through somebody going to try and achieve something politically too quickly, then you lose all your credibility and your authority within the armistice agreement.”

It could be tempting to dismiss this as a military man’s preference for the sword over the pen, but Ruane is clear that it is peace which is the reason for his caution.

“The whole intent of the armistice was to get a peace treaty, so if the peace treaty is signed, great, and as the Swedes and the Swiss said when we first turned up, we’ll be the happiest unemployed people in the world, but you’ve got to remember that you won’t get there unless you maintain the armistice, and you need that vehicle and a mechanism to maintain the peace.”

As to whether permanent peace can be achieved, Ruane says: “I’m a pessimist by nature but an optimist with experience.

“They’ve come an awful long way in a year – a year ago, they were firing missiles, now they’re talking about doing stuff.”

* The author’s trip to Seoul was arranged by the South Korean government.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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