Deep inside the DMZ, nestled within two meters of the border with North Korea is an improbable cluster of buildings which resemble giant Swiss Army knives. The oblong cabins are painted bright red and several are marked with a white cross. One almost expects an outsized blade and a bottle opener to swing out of the top. Between the cabins are stately trees, elegant patio tables and well trimmed hedges. There is also a bomb shelter.
Welcome to the Swiss and Swedish Camp of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission or NNSC. Here, ten discreet Europeans live within spitting distance of the world’s most isolated and unpredictable dictatorship.
The Swiss and Swedes arrived here with tents in July 1953, tasked with monitoring the cease-fire agreement that halted the exceptionally brutal Korean War. They expected to stay a few months while a comprehensive peace treaty was to be negotiated between the warring parties.
Today, nearly 60 years later, they remain marooned in the narrow splinter of no man’s land which acts as a buffer between North and South Korea. No peace treaty ever materialized, leaving the two Koreas technically still at war. The European monitors are contractually committed to a mission with no end in sight.
Originally there were four neutral nations assigned to monitor the cease-fire. Switzerland and Sweden were to observe and report from South Korea. Czechoslovakia and Poland were assigned to North Korea. Once a week, the four NNSC countries were to hold meetings and to share their reports inside a building which precisely straddles the border. As an indication of the seriousness of the task, each neutral nation’s team was to be led by a flag rank officer, meaning at least a two-star general or admiral.
Things didn’t turn out as planned.
One of the key tasks of the NNSC mandate was to monitor the rotation of war matériel and troops onto the Korea peninsula. The NNSC teams were soon denied access to the ports. Nevertheless, the NNSC teams dug in, even as their responsibilities were whittled down. They replaced their tents with the bright red buildings. Seedlings were planted on the barren war-ravaged landscape. An officer’s club, a well appointed dining hall, and other amenities were added.
After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, North Korea decided to expel the Czech and Polish cease-fire monitors. There is no neutral presence left on the North Korean side. The Swiss and Swedish teams living inside the DMZ have dwindled down to a total of ten men. According to the cease-fire document, the highest ranking officers were required to remain. Hence, you currently have an awkward situation where Swiss Major General Urs Gerber and Swedish Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad are in command of four men each. To put their rank in context, the equivalent two-star general in the U.S. military would command a division of 15,000 to 20,000 troops.
The weekly NNSC meetings continue to take place precisely on the border, but since the Czechs and Poles are gone, the Swiss officers only have their Swedish camp-mates to talk to. Their reports are left inside a mailbox on the North Korean side of the meeting building, but the North Koreans rarely collect them anymore. When the box overflows the reports are shredded.
Though run by military officers, the Swiss see their mission as primarily diplomatic. During the occasional periods when tensions were lower between the two Koreas, the Swiss would host evening parties. They invited both North and South Korean officers to attend, offering them an informal chance to speak that would otherwise be nearly impossible to arrange. Since 1995 however, North Korea has completely cut off working relations with the NNSC. The two-sided parties have stopped.
From the point of view of an outsider, it appeared to me that the true substance of the cease-fire agreement had slowly rotted away, leaving only a threadbare operation in place. I asked Swiss Col. Alex Neukomm why they continued their mission with so many of their monitoring duties curtailed and with the current dearth of opportunities to facilitate peaceful engagement. What was left besides an expensive exercise of political theater?
He replied that the Swiss presence is an important and visible reminder that the cease-fire is still in effect. The mission costs Switzerland around 1.5 million dollars per year, but, surprisingly, the colonel said he is sure that his country is able to compensate economically in other areas. He cited the popularity of Switzerland as a destination for South Korean tourists as an example. Indeed, the Swiss delegation has captured the imagination of the South Korean public. A very popular Korean film released in 2000 called “Joint Security Area” portrays a beautiful young Swiss Army officer objectively investigating a murky fatal shootout inside the DMZ.
Swiss neutrality is legendary, and in previous conflicts they have managed to polish their impartial image while simultaneously profiting from business relations with both sides. The stance has occasionally drawn heavy criticism, especially when one side of the conflict is clearly committing war crimes or mass human rights violations, as Nazi Germany did during WWII.
In the case of North Korea, the Swiss government has struggled to decide if it is better to cooperate with the totalitarian regime or to join the majority of Western countries which isolate it as punishment for its nuclear ambitions and human rights abuses. During my research, I came across several interesting points of contact between the Swiss and the North Koreans:
Most other democratic Western governments would be embarrassed to have so many links with Pyongyang. The pharmaceutical and currency ink activities are particularly troubling, especially since most experts believe that the Kim regime props itself up financially mainly through drug trafficking and counterfeiting operations.
However, according to the Swiss, their stance of neutrality combined with these multiple points of contact presents an otherwise unlikely opportunity for communication between the two Koreas. By their reasoning, if a North or South Korean official wants to reach out and make an overture toward the other side, it would be nearly impossible for them to do so directly. More likely, so the theory goes, they’ll reach out through an impartial Swiss intermediary or perhaps cross paths at a Swiss-hosted evening party.
So far, the Swiss theory hasn’t produced any lasting results, and the two Koreas remain locked in a frozen conflict. Nevertheless, the Swiss are determined to remain in their camp.
“We were given the mission by the two sides, and as long as one side wants us to stay, we will stay,” Colonel Neukomm told me.
When the colonel finished his briefing and our interview, I was invited to have a sumptuous lunch with the whole team of Swiss and Swedish officers. Toasts were made toward the pursuit of peace and to the talent of the camp’s chef. It was very easy to forget that outside, just a few dozen meters from the camp, multiple rows of fortifications sprawled out in both directions including mine fields, razor-wire fences, spiked barricades, anti-tank walls, artillery batteries, and finally battalions of heavily armed soldiers. The NNSC camp felt like the eye of a 60-year storm.
©Tomas van Houtryve 2013. This project was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.