Negotiations between Trump, North Korea at a standstill, but optimism still in force at DMZ

Deirdre Shesgreen
Patrick Gauchat’s workspace is a minefield – a thin swath of isolated territory, crowded with tanks, artillery, and thousands of tense soldiers.

Panmunjom, South Korea – Patrick Gauchat’s workspace literally is a minefield – a thin swath of isolated territory, crowded with tanks, artillery, and thousands of tense soldiers separating North and South Korea.

The Swiss major general’s mission here is to make sure the two countries comply with the 66-year-old armistice that ended the bloody Korean War. In his spare time, Gauchat tunes in to the topsy-turvey negotiations between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un – and waits for peace to make his job obsolete.

“I think Trump’s trying something new. He can surprise even his staff,” Gauchat said over lunch in the squat building that serves as a dining hall for the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission.

Overseen by the United Nations, the commission was created after the 1953 armistice to ensure that neither North nor South Korea started stockpiling new weapons or beefing up their battalions once the hostilities officially ended.

Gauchat and a Swedish rear admiral, Anders Grenstad, now lead the group’s work, which also involves interviewing North Korean defectors who sprint across the border and investigating other aberrant incidents.

'The friendliness' has begun

But the Swiss-and-Swedish team’s mission has shifted recently – ever since “the friendliness” started between Trump, Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, as Grenstad calls the high-stakes negotiations among the three leaders.

The changes began after Moon and Kim agreed last April to transform the demilitarized zone into “a peace zone,” starting with a series of small steps. Since then, Grenstad and Gauchat have watched North and South Korean soldiers dismantle guard posts, remove land mines and silence their competing propaganda broadcasts that blared along the DMZ.

“Normally when we walked out here, we couldn’t have a normal conversation because of all the noise,” Grenstad told USA TODAY and several other U.S. journalists during a visit to their camp earlier this month. Before the Kim-Moon agreement, the North Koreans constantly blasted opera and mantras slamming South Koreans as “puppets” of the United States, while the Moon government filled the air with K-Pop and speeches that Grenstad summarized as: “You are so bad over there, we are so good over here.”

Now, both countries have quieted their loudspeakers and taken down 10 guard posts each. They’ve also emptied one additional guard post each, left standing to be part of a hoped-for future museum.

Clearing land mines on both sides

The South Koreans invited the Swiss-Swedish officials to observe those steps on their side, allowing them to monitor, for instance, when Moon’s military forces used high-tech American equipment to clear land mines. The North Koreans have refused to allow the neutral observers to monitor their work, but Grenstad said they’ve been able to see Kim’s soldiers carrying out the de-escalation steps – poking the ground with sticks, for example, to locate land mines.  

“North Korean mine clearing is (done) with a long stick. I wouldn’t like to walk on that,” Grenstad quipped.

At least two mines have exploded in the North Korean area that was supposed to be cleared. Grenstad and Gauchat had to investigate those incidents, along with the hailstorm of bullets sprayed by the North Korean guards when one of their own ran across the line in November of 2017. The defector was shot five times but survived.

“It all happened within 13 seconds,” Grenstad said. “Nobody had a chance to react, and North Korea withdrew immediately afterwards.”

After such incidents, each country’s military is supposed to conduct an investigation and then meet in the barracks to discuss it along with Gauchat and Grendstat. The U.N. pair made one recommendation after the defector crossing, which they declined to discuss. The North Koreans don’t participate in those sessions, but they did make one big change after the defector shooting.

“The North Koreans changed all their guards two days later,” bringing 35 new soldiers in to man the border, said Rickard Lindquist, a lieutenant colonel assigned to the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. No one is sure what happened to the 35 who were swapped out.

A surprising dialogue

About one month later, Grentsad and Gauchat had lunch with South Korea’s minister of unification. They asked if there was any chance for dialogue. “Absolutely not,” came the response.

But dialogue soon got underway, surprising those stationed in the DMZ along with the rest of the world. Grenstad and Gauchat have watched in amazement as Trump, Kim and Moon participated in a series of high-profile summits – including a dramatic meeting at the DMZ where Moon and Kim sat together at the end of a blue bridge to speak one-on-one.

“Everything is not kosher and dandy yet,” Grendstad notes.

For starters, North Korea announced last week that it had tested a new "tactical guided weapon" that would increase the country's "combat power." The Kim regime did not disclose what type of weapon it had tested, but experts said it amounted to a provocation and a sign of frustration with the negotiations. 

Even before last week's weapons test, the cooperation between the North and South Korean military had stalled in the wake of the Hanoi summit, where Trump and Kim failed to reach any agreement on denuclearization and sanctions relief.

At that February meeting, Kim offered to dismantle North Korea's main nuclear facility, Yongbyan, if the U.S. would provide major sanctions relief. Trump rejected that, instead pushing Kim to give up North Korea's entire stockpile of nuclear bombs, missiles and other capabilities, in exchange for full sanctions relief. The talks ended abruptly, with Trump leaving Vietnam early. 

“(It) ended in a different way than everybody thought. And right now, we don’t know is it happening,” Grenstad said.

Lindquist said he and other commission officers talk about the negotiations among themselves every day, trying to track all the developments. It can be frustrating to be a neutral observer, he said.

“Sometimes you want to be the commander. You want to be Mr. Trump,” he said.

Asked if he ever fears for his life, Lindquist said yes – because of the tiger snakes and crazy Korean traffic, but not because of the North Korean soldiers across the line. Gauchat – who previously served in Syria – agreed that the DMZ doesn’t feel like a dangerous place to be stationed.  

Gauchat has two more years here before his current tour is up, then he can sign up for another six-year stint if he wants. “But I hope peace will push me out.”

Related stories:

North Korea wants Pompeo out of talks; Kremlin announces an April visit by Kim Jong Un

President Trump predicts 'tremendous things' with North Korea, but over time

South Korean president Moon seeks deal, maybe a new summit, for Trump and Kim Jong Un

Reporting for this story was made possible by the Atlantic Council Korea Journalist Fellowship Program. Deirdre Shesgreen participated in the fellowship, which was sponsored by the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the Korea Foundation. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Negotiations between Trump, North Korea at a standstill, but optimism still in force at DMZ