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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Koreans Relax as Tensions Ease

UIJONGBU, South Korea -- In this city that lies between Seoul and the border with North Korea, an odd-looking gate-like structure rises above the main street, ready to be dismantled. It still supports what seems to the naked eye to be several tons of concrete that serve no particular purpose beyond casting a shadow over approaching cars and the small shops nearby.

The concrete slab, transformed into a giant billboard, offers few clues. "Kids learn from dad's good driving and yielding," says an advertisement for Kia Motors. Below it a message warns: "Report spies. Call 080 777 1113."

"Where are the spies?" asked Moon Jung-bin, 12, a seventh grader who was munching away at a nearby Dunkin' Donuts with her classmate Lim Ji-su, also 12.

"How do you discover who's a spy?" Ji-su said, as the two, perhaps inevitably, started giggling.

Neither had ever noticed the exhortation to report on infiltrators from North Korea. As for the odd-looking structure itself, although Jung-bin believed it was "some construction project," Ji-su's parents had told her that it was, in fact, an anti-tank fortification.

In the event of an invasion, explosives would blow up the fortification and send concrete blocks crashing down to form an instant barricade. This would slow North Korean tanks that presumably would be barreling down this road to Seoul, just 19 kilometers to the south, the way they did on the second day of the Korean War.

But in yet another sign of the easing of tensions between the Koreas and the changing nature of warfare, South Korean workers began dismantling the fortification at Uijongbu (pronounced wee-jong-boo) last month and are expected to finish tearing it down before spring. A second one is to be demolished by the end of the year, and the last four are expected to go in the next few years.

Indeed, several cities with roads leading to Seoul have quietly started doing the same in recent months, after getting the South Korean military's permission. One by one, these structures that were considered, variously over the decades, as shields against communism, protectors of the free world, traffic nuisances or environmental eyesores, are disappearing from the landscape.

A year after South and North Koreans began to work together at the Kaesong special economic zone, on the northern side of the demilitarized zone not far from Uijongbu, the fortifications were perhaps bound to appear anachronistic.

"Tanks, coming?" Jung-bin said, as her eyes widened and the two seventh-graders erupted in a fresh round of giggling. "It sounds like a story from far away."

With the two Koreas still technically at war, the two fronts remain among the world's most heavily militarized, with hundreds of thousands of South and North Korean soldiers stationed on either side of the demilitarized zone. Checkpoints and military facilities dot the area.

Still, in an age of missile-led warfare, the anti-tank fortifications appeared to have lost their raison d'etre. What is more, after the South began carrying out its "sunshine policy" of engaging the North in the late 1990s, tension lessened considerably on the peninsula.

The Defense Ministry said that in 1999, cities with the fortifications, including Uijongbu, Kuri, Paju, Koyang and Yangju, began asking that they be removed. The cities, which had swelled over the years as bedroom communities to Seoul, complained that the structures caused traffic jams and were eyesores.

Some 57 anti-tank fortifications are believed to have been erected in the area surrounding Seoul, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. Defense officials said they could not reveal how many were being dismantled but that they approved removal where the military could maintain "overall defense capabilities."

Tension here on South Korea's northern front decreased considerably as both sides agreed in 2004 to dismount loudspeakers that had been used for decades to blare propaganda across the demilitarized zone, said Park Chang Kwon, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. As the South's psychological wariness of the North Korean threat has diminished, Park said, phone calls reporting spies have also fallen.

n North and South Korea are in talks to allow former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung to visit the North in April, an aide to Kim said on Thursday, Reuters reported.

Kim won a Nobel Peace Prize for orchestrating an unprecedented and so far unrepeated meeting of the leaders of the two Koreas when he traveled to Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in June 2000.