The Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ) in Korea is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an acute angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It is 248 km long and approximately 4 km wide.
The 38th parallel north — which cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half — was the original boundary between the American and Soviet occupation zones established at the end of World War II, and became the border between North Korea and South Korea upon the formation of those two countries in 1948. (See Division of Korea for more details.) The Korean War began in 1950, and by 1951 the two sides involved had settled down into more or less of a stalemate position, roughly along the line the DMZ follows today. When a ceasefire was agreed upon in July 27th, 1953, the DMZ was established along the stalemate line. Owing to the stalemate, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the line, each side guarding against potential aggression from the other side.
Military Demarcation Line
The line running down the middle of the DMZ—and that divides North and South Korea—is called the Military Demarcation Line. The line is only a ceasefire line: although it has served as the boundary between the two countries since 1953, the two countries are still technically at war. In Korean, the line is called Hyujeonseon (Revised Romanization (RR))/Hyujŏnsŏn (McCune-Reischauer (MR)) (휴전선; 休戰線), which literally means "ceasefire line." In colloquial usage, the dividing line is more often called the Sampalseon (RR)/Samp'alsŏn (MR) (삼팔선; 三八線; "38th parallel"), a name likely coined at the end of World War II, when it would have been an accurate description of the North-South border. Since 1953, the Demilitarized Zone or the DMZ has split the Korean peninsula in half, separating the Communist, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north and the democratically elected Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south. The DMZ was formed after the 3 year Korean War which ended on July 27, 1953. The war ravaged the peninsula, killing thousands, and splitting an otherwise homogenous people between the communist supported north and the American, democratically supported south. Geographically, the DMZ is situated on the 38th parallel and is split by 2 miles on either side. This is where the original borders for North and South Korea were defined, when they were split by the allied powers after World War II. After being liberated from Japanese imperialism at the end of WW II, the Soviet Union and the United States split the peninsula into two spheres of influence based in the North and South respectively. Once statehood was declared independently, each of the two states remained dependent on their super power sponsors for defense, building up governmental institutions and rebuilding the local economies. As one of the active positions of the cold war, North Korea aggressively marched over the 38th parallel in 1950. This sparked off the 3 year long Korean War, in which the United States coupled with the United Nations supported South Korea to invade the North, which was supported by the Soviet Union and China.
After the war, both economies were destroyed and the dependence upon the Soviet Union and the United States increased and climaxed with the ceasefire in 1953. Back at the 38th parallel, North and South Korea still to this day maintain guards along the DMZ. At Panmunjom, in a region called the joint defense area, a number of buildings are kept up and multiple guard posts are maintained by South Korea with the U.N. and by the North Korean soldiers. The joint defense area is the location where all negotiations since 1953 have been held, including a number of statements of Korean solidarity, which due to political and other pressures have amounted to little, except a slight decline of tensions.
Within the DMZ there are two villages, one, which is run by the north and the other by the south. Taesong-dong is a village, which is found on the southern side of the DMZ is a traditional village and is strictly controlled by the South Korean government. For instance, one must have ancestral connections to the village, in order to live there. Through these limits, the population of the village is kept very small. On the other hand, Gijeong-dong or as it is called in North Korea, "Peace Village” has only a small caretaker population. In the armistice agreement the North felt that it should be allowed to have a town within the borders of the DMZ since the South already had one. UN troops call this Propaganda Village because only a small group of people cleaning and turning on lights reside within the village. Although from afar it appears to be a modern village, one can tell with binoculars that there is not even glass within the windows of the buildings. In the past, North Korean propaganda was sent out by loudspeaker across to Taesong-dong.
When the South Korean government built a 100 metre tall flagpole in Taesong-dong in the 1980's, the North Korean government responded by building a taller one. This flagpole is the tallest in the world, 160 metres tall, with the North Korean flag at the top itself weighing in at about 270 kg when dry. The flag must immediately be taken down when it starts to rain, as it cannot support its own weight when wet.
Despite continued tensions, very little conflict has happened recently within the DMZ. Besides a number of small conflicts within the Joint Security area, including a tree cutting incident which resulted in the death of a American serviceman Capt. Arthur Bonifas and a Soviet interpreter fleeing communist life, there has been little direct conflict.
Other than Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area, the DMZ is empty besides a large number of land mines and some of the most undisturbed wildlife in the world. On either side of the DMZ over a million troops are stationed defending their sides respectively and represent the largest directly conflicting military build up within the world. With the announcement in February of 2005 that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and with the existing arsenal of other weapons that could quickly demolish the whole population of the Korean continent, the DMZ is coming to represent the failures of the cold war and the destruction done upon the Korean peoples. Despite their commonalities and recent joint declarations, the Korean peninsula is yet to be reunited and is not promising to be any time soon with the DMZ as the physical and symbolic representation of this.
Panmunjeom (RR)/P'anmunjŏm (MR) is the site of the negotiations that ended the Korean War and is the main center of human activity in the DMZ. The village is located on the main highway and railway line (called the Gyeongui Line before division and today in the south and the P'yŏngbu Line in the north) connecting Seoul and P'yŏngyang. The highway is used on rare occasions to move people between the two countries (much like Checkpoint Charlie in Cold War East and West Berlin), and the railway line is currently being reconnected as part of the general thawing in the relations between North and South. A new road and rail connection is also being built on the Donghae Bukbu (Tonghae Pukpu) Line .
Except in the area around the truce village of Panmunjeom and more recently on the Donghae Bukbu Line on the east coast, humans, for the most part, have not entered the DMZ for the last fifty years. This isolation has created, as a byproduct, one of the most well preserved pieces of temperate land in the world. Environmentalists hope that if reunification occurs, the former DMZ will become a wildlife refuge.
A few tunnels have been discovered connecting North Korea to South Korea under the DMZ, which authorities in the south have alleged to be conduits for covert invasion. The first tunnel was discovered on 15 November 1974. It is believed to be about 45 metres below surface, with a total length of about 3.5 kilometres, penetrating over 1000 metres into the DMZ. When the first tunnel was discovered, it featured electric lines and lamps, as well as railways and paths for vehicles. The second was discovered on 19 March 1975, and is of similar length and between 50 and 160 metres below surface. The third tunnel was discovered on 17 October 1978. As the previous two, the third tunnel was discovered following a tip off from a North Korean defector. This time the South Koreans failed to find the tunnel directly, but dug a counter-tunnel to meet the North Korean tunnel. This tunnel is about 2 kilometres long and about 150 metres below surface. The fourth tunnel was discovered on 3 March 1990. It is almost identical in structure to the second and the third tunnel.
The tunnels are each large enough to allow the passing of a division in a single hour. Today, it is possible to visit some of the tunnels as part of guided tourist tours from the south.
Tourists visiting the southern side of the DMZ are told (by US soldiers acting as tour guides) that the North Korean building facing South Korea on the DMZ is not a real building, but "a facade designed to look large and impressive, in reality only a frame a few feet (1m) thick." Tourists who have visited the northern side of the DMZ have refuted this. Propaganda in the North has stated that the US and South Korea have built a massive unclimbable wall across the entire length of the DMZ. While the wall in question in fact exists, it is little more than a tank barrier. Upon the collapse of the Berlin Wall, propagandists in the North seized upon its value and proclaimed this tank barrier to be a wall equivalent to the one in Berlin.
Last updated: 08-19-2005 06:52:21