SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea accused the United States on Sunday of abandoning a 50-year-old truce by deciding to withdraw its forces from the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean peninsula.
But U.S. and South Korean officials said the North Korean military, in a statement issued by the official KCNA news agency, had misconstrued Washington’s position on the Demilitarized Zone and the truce village of Panmunjom. They said Washington had no intention of giving up its command in the truce village.
The Panmunjom mission of the Korean People’s Army — North Korea’s 1.1-million strong military — said in its statement the United States had announced “all of a sudden” it was withdrawing completely from the Demilitarized Zone and the so-called Joint Security Area that straddles the border in the truce village.
“The report is completely factually in error,” U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Deborah Bertrand said. “The United States retains its presence in and command of the Joint Security Area.”
Bertrand was speaking for the U.S. Forces in Korea, the United Nations Command that enforces the Armistice Agreement and the Combined Forces Command that brings together the U.S. and South Korean military.
A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman said by telephone the number of U.S. soldiers in the Joint Security Area was to be reduced from 150 to 40 by the end of October, but the United States would retain command because South Korea is not a signatory to the Armistice Agreement.
After the change in the number of soldiers, the U.S. contingent will make up about seven percent rather than 30 percent of the 500-strong force there. Overall, the South Korean military is about 680,000 strong. The United States has 37,500 troops in the South to help deter the North.
WRONG END OF STICK
“North Korea appears to have misunderstood the details of the duty transfer to South Korea,” the South Korean spokesman said.
The North Korean statement reiterated the official view that U.S. forces are upgrading their equipment and staging exercises ahead of an attack to thwart Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons plans.
“The U.S. decision to take even its small force out of the JSA in Panmunjom and DMZ against this backdrop indicates that the U.S. preparations for a preemptive attack upon the DPRK are under way at a final phase,” it said.
“The gravity of the unilateral measure taken by the U.S. forces side without any consultation with the KPA side, a signatory to the Armistice Agreement, lies not in taking the small force out of the JSA and DMZ but in giving up its status as a signatory to the Armistice Agreement through this action.”
DPRK is short for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The Armistice Agreement is the truce that was signed in 1953 to end three years of fighting in the Korean War. That means the two sides are still technically at war.
The U.S. and North Korean military have contact through liaison meetings and telephone calls at Panmunjom, where burly South Korean guards in sunglasses under U.S. command face off against scowling North Korean guards.
The North Korean statement said its military would take unspecified strong measures to ensure security in the Demilitarized Zone and said any hiatus in contacts “would push the situation to a very grave phase of tension.”
The United States has said it will hand over its last outpost in the Demilitarized Zone — Observation Post Ouellette overlooking the North near Panmunjom — this year as part of its reshuffle of forces in South Korea. But its role in the Joint Security Area will remain unchanged.