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(Yonhap Feature) Hotline in truce village remains severed after aborted inter-Korean talks

By Kim Eun-jung

PANMUNJOM, Korea, June 13 (Yonhap) -- At the center of the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas, there are two buildings on each side of the Joint Security Area guarded by stone-faced soldiers standing face-to-face: the Freedom House on the South Korean side and Panmungak on the North Korean side.

The symbolic buildings are a five-minute walking distance from door to door, but South and North Koreans do not cross the Military Demarcation Line, established under the Armistice Agreement that ended Korean War hostilities 60 years ago.

Instead, they communicate through a Red Cross hotline in liaison offices in the two buildings. Normally, South and North Korean officials talk twice a day -- in the morning and in the afternoon -- except weekends and national holidays. When talking points arise outside of those times, they can dial up or fax documents to each other.

The telephone link that runs through Panmunjom has long been a vital source of government-to-government communication since the 1970s in the absence of diplomatic relations.

However, the hotline has occasionally gone silent in the past when relations between the rival countries became rocky. Angry over the annual drills by South Korea and the United States, North Korea in March threatened to nullify the Armistice Agreement and cut the hotline.

Three months after the standoff, Pyongyang last week made a surprise offer to resume government-to-government talk -- the first in six years -- and restore the telephone line to coordinate the two-day dialogue on Wednesday and Thursday.

The planned talks, however, didn't take place, as negotiations fell through at the last minute over seemingly minor protocol disputes over the ranks of their respective chief delegates.

Since Wednesday morning, South Korean officials have called their North Korean counterparts twice a day, but the calls have gone unanswered..

Instead, a spokesman for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) on Thursday released a statement blaming South Korea for the failed talks, accusing Seoul of having "no intent to hold dialogue from the beginning."

   "We have nothing to expect from the talks between authorities of the north and the south," said the statement carried by the North's Korean Central News Agency. Seoul's Unification Ministry regretted North Korea's response.

Regardless of the latest ups and downs in inter-Korean relations, armed forces guarding the JSA say it's business as usual, like the slogan displayed at the gateway: "In Front of Them All."

   JSA guards say they are always under constant pressure to monitor the slightest signs of abnormal activity at the North Korean side of the DMZ, which is monitored by surveillance cameras and soldiers in observation posts round the clock.

"Despite the recent situation, there has been no special movement by North Korean soldiers," Army First Lieutenant Seo Chang-won of the JSA Security Battalion told a Yonhap News Agency reporter. "We stay tight as usual."

   Buses packed with tourists lined up in front of a checkpoint to Panmunjom, and several U.S. Army vehicles and trucks crossed the Unification Bridge, a gateway to the Civilian Control Zone where public access is restricted.

Adjacent to the last Cold War frontier, the Mount Dora Observation Post was crowded with foreign tourists who wanted to have a rare opportunity to peer into the isolated, communist nation.

"I came here to see North Korea from the South Korean side," said a Chinese tourist with the family name of Zhang. "It's a unique experience that I can travel to this border area when big political events take place."

   Using a telescope to search for the statue of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung located in Kaesong, the 23-year-old from Shanghai said he was surprised to see that the North Korean city that often appeared in the media was located very close to the South.

Kaesong is home to a joint industrial zone where 123 South Korean firms had operated before business was suspended in early April amid high military tensions.

The third-largest North Korean city after the showy capital of Pyongyang and the western port city of Nampo can be easily seen without the aid of a telescope on clear days from the observation post, which sits on a 156-meter hill.

With a telescope, high-story apartments and buildings with names of South Korean companies -- such as Hyundai Construction, Osan and Ace -- are visible, as well as some people near rice paddies.

As the planned talks in Seoul were to have focused on resuming the suspended industrial park, South Korean firms based in Kaesong voiced their concern over the cancellation of the talks and called for the prompt resumption of inter-Korean meetings.

"To normalize Kaesong Industrial Complex, it is urgent to check equipment and facilities (in factories)," a group of representatives of South Korean firms in Kaesong said during a briefing on Wednesday. "We ask for the government to take the necessary measures so that equipment monitoring teams can visit the complex as soon as possible before the rainy season begins."