(Updates to add TV tag)
By Josh Smith
SEOUL, Sept 28 (Reuters) – When U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris makes a planned visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas on Thursday, she will be the latest in a long line of dignitaries – and tourists – to come contemplate in secret North Korea.
The DMZ is a relic of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, and despite its name, is heavily fortified coast to coast with barbed wire , heavy armaments and tank traps on either side of a 4 km wide Buffer Zone.
It is the symbol of a divided peninsula, separated families, geopolitical tensions and bloody military clashes. The area has also become a surreal tourist destination, with shopping malls, theme parks, hiking trails and other attractions, at least on the South Korean side.
US presidents and scores of senior officials have visited the area, often wearing military-style jackets and usually arriving with messages of support for the alliance that keeps nearly 30,000 US troops in South Korea.
“It’s symbolic in that these guys want to show they care about the DMZ and keeping the Peninsula safe, and it’s also a to-do list item,” Steve Tharp said. , a retired US Army officer who has spent years making it easy for everyone to visit the DMZ. from politicians and generals to American comedian Conan O’Brien, who filmed a skit from the North Korean side of the border.
Ronald Reagan was the first US president to visit the DMZ, but Bill Clinton and Donald Trump are the only sitting presidents to have visited the Joint Security Area (JSA), a cluster of buildings that hosts talks, and the only place where troops from both sides face each other, he said.
During Clinton’s 1993 visit, he walked to the Bridge of No Return, which spans the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that forms the border, and was named after prisoners of war crossed it .
Clinton – who once called the DMZ “the scariest place on Earth” – reportedly kept asking if he had gone further than any other president, Tharp said.
He had. At least until Trump became the first US president to briefly enter North Korea, when he met leader Kim Jong Un at the border in 2019 for hastily arranged talks that ultimately did not succeed. to bring stalled denuclearization talks to life.
“He tweeted from Japan on a Saturday around 8 a.m. and arrived 24 hours later and was in the DMZ at 1:30 p.m. and walked through the MDL to meet Kim Jong Un,” said a former senior US official. defense.
“It was sporty, but we had a great team and it went off without a hitch.”
George W. Bush was supposed to visit on his first trip to South Korea as president in late 2001, but the September 11 attacks derailed the plan and when he finally visited the following year , it was at an observation post set back from the border and protected by a bulletproof glass shield, Tharp said.
Harris will be the first senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit the DMZ, and U.S. and South Korean officials said the trip was meant to underscore the alliance between Seoul and Washington in the face of any threat posed by Korea. North.
“This sends a clear message of support for the alliance from the White House,” the former senior official said.
Biden visited the DMZ before becoming president, but decided against it on his first trip to South Korea as president this year.
During the latest wave of heightened tensions in 2017, then-Vice President Mike Pence visited the DMZ, calling it the “frontier of freedom” and later saying he went there because he wanted the North Koreans “to see our determination in my face”.
North Korea has isolated itself more than ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and its DMZ border guards rarely venture out, often donning protective suits when they do.
Weeds have invaded the North Korean side of the line between the two Koreas where Trump and Kim shook hands in 2019. (Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)