This 4km wide strip of land is all that stands between about 1 million heavily armed troops ranged either side of the border between North and South Korea.
The atmosphere inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ), established after the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a ceasefire, mirrors the current state of cross-border relations: prolonged tension, occasional flare-ups and a return to the “status quo.”
That precarious arrangement has prevented the two Koreas from going to war again, but it has failed to bring a real and lasting peace, say experts who believe the time has come for the US and its allies to consider a new approach to North Korea unthinkable just a week ago: dialogue.
On Sunday, Washington postponed a planned intercontinental missile test, giving encouragement to observers who have urged a more moderate tone in recent days. The initial high-octane response — which included flying B2 bombers over the peninsula — has only made a bad situation worse, so the current thinking goes.
“There has been a ratcheting down of deterrence gestures by the US, and that has helped cool the situation a little,” said John Delury, a North Korea analyst at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Delury believes more aggressive diplomatic gestures could help ease the situation further, but only if the political will exists to begin even limited engagement with the regime.
“This whole crisis has shown us how little we really know about Kim Jong-un, and we’re not going to learn any more unless we talk,” he said. “And talking isn’t the same as backing down.”
The South Korean media reported calls last weekend from both sides of the political divide in Seoul for the administration to send an envoy to Pyongyang to lay the foundation for talks.
A key new appointment in Pyongyang may have given the South an ideal negotiating partner: Pak Pong-ju, an economic reformer and pragmatist who became the North’s premier last week.
“He is someone everyone can work with, including China,” Delury said.
There are clear signs that China’s approach to its unpredictable ally is changing. It quickly signed up to UN sanctions after the North conducted its third nuclear test in February. Last week it voiced serious concern over the sudden escalation in rhetoric and urged calm on all sides.
Washington’s best chance of altering the course of events on the Korean Peninsula will depend on how much further Beijing is willing to go. China has traditionally supported the “status quo,” which allows North Korea to act as a buffer state between it and the South, where tens of thousands of US troops are based. However, a continuation of the current standoff, which could include a build-up of US military hardware, is hardly in China’s interests either.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) indicated on Sunday that Beijing could respond to international pressure to rein in North Korea. He did not mention the state by name, but said in a speech to business leaders that no country should be able “to throw the region, or even the entire world, into chaos for selfish gains.”
Switzerland, meanwhile, offered to act as a mediator with Pyongyang, according to the Swiss foreign ministry, which recently made contact with the North Korean authorities.
“Switzerland is willing to contribute to a de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula and is always willing to help find a solution, if this is the wish of the parties, such as hosting meetings between them,” a Swiss spokeswoman said.