SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – South Korea plans to dismantle parts of a wire fence built in the 1950s to prevent infiltration by North Korean agents, the Defense Ministry said Wednesday, a sign that perceptions about Seoul’s communist neighbor are softening.
The decision to take down sections of the fence that lines a river connecting the capital of Seoul to North Korea came after years of petitioning by local governments wanting the military to open up the area for civilian use.
The barbed wire fences were installed along the Han River running through Seoul right after the 1950-53 Korean War – which ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty – over concerns that North Korean commandoes could use the waterway to infiltrate the South.
One section of the fence lines a major riverside highway linking Seoul to one of its satellite cities and has been seen as a reminder of the cease-fire status between the two Koreas, and how close the South’s capital is to the nuclear-armed North. The South’s capital is only about 30miles away from the border.
The ministry and the city of Gimpo, west of Seoul, said they agreed in principle to dismantle a 8.1-mile section of the southern end of the fence as well as a similar length of the fence set up on the other side of the river.
The ministry declined to give the total length of the fences, saying it was a military secret. But looking at a map, the fence likely stretches well over 60miles.
“Would secret agents come over to the South via the Han River in the 21st century?” asked Chang Yoon-seok, an official of the Gimpo city government. “The fences aren’t necessary. ... They have only restricted our regional development efforts.”
South Koreans’ view of the North has softened significantly since the first and only summit of their leaders in 2000.
They consider the hard-line regime as much less of a threat despite tensions on the divided peninsula after the North’s missile tests in July and its first nuclear explosion in October.
The river has been used as an infiltration route before by North Korean agents.
In 1980, three armed agents from the North were shot and killed trying to sneak into the South via the river. In 1995 – the most recent known infiltration attempt – South Korean guards foiled an attempt by three North Korean agents to enter a border river connected to the Han.
To maintain security, Chang said the military wants to install closed circuit cameras, infrared cameras and other surveillance equipment after dismantling the fences.
He said it wasn’t clear when the dismantlement could happen. But local media, including Yonhap news agency, reported that it could take place next year.