On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent a couple of hours in a spot Bill Clinton once called “the scariest place on Earth.”
Tillerson toured Panmunjom, a “truce village” plopped near the inter-Korean border. It's less town than terrifying hangout for soldiers from two of the world's fiercest enemies, who keep watch on each other 24 hours a day. It's described, in travel articles, as the world's most heavily armed border. Before entering, visitors are required to sign a form that begins: “The visit to the joint security area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death.” (Fun fact: The souvenir shop sells bits of rusty barbed wire from the two parallel fences that run right across Korea's belly!) Created in 1953, it's been the site of several skirmishes.
Despite the area's tense history, and that relations between the United States and North Korea are worse than they've been in years (this week, Tillerson said that America would use military force to deter the threat from Pyongyang), North Korean soldiers were able to cozy up to the top diplomat with few restrictions. As you can see above, one got inches away to snap a shot with a Japanese-made camera.
The picture wigged some people out:
But as North Korea watchers explain, there's very little to fear. Military and Red Cross talks have been held here over the decades without incident. Thousands of adventurous travelers invoke FOMO (or JOMO, depending on who's looking) among their Instagram followers by touring the village (celebrated as the Cold War's last frontier) each year. When there are visitors though, soldiers from both the North and South trail them very closely.
As Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, explained to me:
This picture would have been taken inside the T-2 building at Panmunjom, which is opened alternately on a regular schedule to visitors from the ROK and DPRK sides of the DMZ. This is the building where many of the armistice and subsequent armistice implementation negotiations historically have taken place, and is a regular stop on the DMZ tour. During South Korean-side visits to the DMZ, North Korean soldiers have traditionally taken pictures of visitors for propaganda purposes, and South Korean soldiers may possibly do the same with North Korean delegations. I witnessed this same picture taking activity by NK soldiers during my last visit there in February of 2016.
With regard to security risks, one has to remember both that despite the name Demilitarized Zone, this is one of the most highly militarized zones on earth but also that interactions at the JSA portion of the DMZ are highly ritualized. So there is an element of tension, but there is also an element of regularity of interaction that breeds a sense of business as usual and where the soldiers on both sides have established ground rules that have governed daily interaction in this space for decades. The most famous breach of those rules occurred during the ‘ax murder incident’ in the 1970s, involving a North Korean assault on a US-ROK tree trimming operation of a poplar that had obscured vision in a part of the JSA.
Because of the ritualized nature of the interactions at the JSA, I think there would only be real danger in the event that the ritualized interactions were to break down. Since shooting pictures (rather than guns) is a part of the ritualized interaction, I see the visit of Secretary Tillerson as engendering essentially the same risk as any other visit to the DMZ. Since there are almost daily tours there, this is relatively low risk; soldiers at the DMZ would immediately recognize changes in behavior on the other side that would indirectly suggest the possibility of greater risk, in which case the visit would be canceled.
Here's that picture of him from another angle:
Here's another world leader in similar “peril”:
And here are the requisite Twitter jokes about Tillerson's famous aversion to the media: