Sweden's King Carl Gustaf visited the headquarters of the NNSC last year, Photo: Jung Yeon-je/Scanpix

Sixty years on the Korean border

Sixty years ago this month, the commission monitoring the border between North and South Korea held its first meeting. Sweden was one of the four founders, and the Swedes are still monitoring the troubled ceasefire on the Korean peninsula.

Days after the ceasefire ending the fighting, August 1953 saw the first meeting of the Neutral Nations' Supervisory Commission, the NNSC. Sweden was one of the four founding members of this mechanism aimed at regulating relations between the two Koreas.

Ever since then Swedish officers have served on the border monitoring the armistice. They're stationed on the southern side, because in 1995 the North Koreans ended contact with the NNSC. According to the head of the Swedish mission, Anders Grenstad, the North Koreans tend to regard them as the lapdogs of the Americans.

But, on a telephone line from Seoul, he tells us that after the North Korean's provocations with rocket launches and nuclear tests last winter, things have mostly returned to their normal level of tension.

"In the media tensions have dropped, but the two countries haven't gotten any closer," he says. "The joint industrial complex at Kaesong is still closed. Tensions along the border are the way they've been since 2010."

That was when North Korea sank a South Korean navy ship and shot at some disputed islands.

The 60 years of tensions since the end of the formal fighting has lasted as long as the conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and India and Pakistan. According to Peter Wallensteen, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, the longer the conflict, the harder it is to resolve. So how does he see the Swedish role in the Korean armistice force?

"I would say it is well-regarded locally," he says. "Sweden has had a unique role in that we also have diplomatic representation in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, one of the few western countries to do so."

When Sweden held the presidency of the European Union in 2001, Wallensteen says, Prime Minister Göran Persson tried to open a dialog and get the EU involved.

But so far there's still no dialog between the two Koreas.

Nowadays NNSC officers from neutral Sweden and Switzerland carry out observations and inspections along the border zone. It's supposed to be kept demilitarized to prevent anything that might look like a provocation or preparations for war.

Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad, head of the Swedish mission and former chief of the Swedish naval base at Karlskrona, says the five Swedish officers travel a lot around South Korea.

"Naturally things can be done that we don't see," he says, "but making sure that the south respects the ceasefire is incredibly important for the head of the United Nations Command, an American lieutenant general. They don't want a war to break out. Openness is important, and the Swedish observers are supported in their mission, Grenstad says, because the commander publicly talks about it if his troops or the South Koreans do something wrong."

There has been much more openness in recent years than in the past, he says.

But can the impasse between the two sides ever be bridged? Peace and conflict researcher Peter Wallensteen says the only way is through confidence-building measures and contacts in other areas. In that way, he says, you can create a different dynamic.

But right now the positions still seem locked. And Anders Grenstad, head of the Swedish mission on the border, is not overly optimistic.

"North Korea is more and more isolated," he says. "There's one major player here, and that is China. If China decides to put on more pressure, they ought to be able to solve this conflict, so I hope there might at least be a peace treaty between the two countries. But right now things don't seem very bright."

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