Korean Demilitarized Zone

Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
한반도 비무장지대

Hanbando Bimujangjidae
Korean Peninsula

The Korean DMZ is shown in red with the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) denoted by the black line.
Type DMZ
Length 250 kilometres (160 mi)
Site information
Open to
the public
No, access only by special permission
Condition Fully manned and operational
Site history
Built by
In use July 27, 1953 (1953-07-27) – present
Events Division of Korea
A South Korean checkpoint in the DMZ, viewed from the North Korean side

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ; Hangul: 한반도 비무장지대; Hanja: 韓半島非武裝地帶) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula. It was established at the end of the Korean War to serve as a buffer zone between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The DMZ is a de facto border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half. It was created by agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations in 1953. The DMZ is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long, and about 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) wide.

Within the DMZ is a meeting-point between the two nations in the small Joint Security Area near the western end of the zone, where negotiations take place. There have been various incidents in and around the DMZ, with military and civilian casualties on both sides. Several tunnels are claimed to have been built as an invasion route for the North Koreans.


The Korean Demilitarized Zone roughly follows the 38th parallel north on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it.

The DMZ is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long,[1] approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide and, despite its name, is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Also on a regular basis troops on both sides assigned to outpost along the DMZ will take pot shots at each other.[2][3] The Northern Limit Line, or NLL, is the disputed maritime demarcation line between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea, not agreed in the armistice. The coastline and islands on both sides of the NLL are also heavily militarized.[4]


Main article: Division of Korea

The 38th parallel north—which divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half—was the original boundary between the United States and Soviet Union's brief administration areas of Korea at the end of World War II. Upon the creation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, informally North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, informally South Korea) in 1948, it became a de facto international border and one of the most tense fronts in the Cold War.

Both the North and the South remained dependent on their sponsor states from 1948 to the outbreak of the Korean War. That conflict, which claimed over three million lives and divided the Korean Peninsula along ideological lines, commenced on 25 June 1950, with a full-front DPRK invasion across the 38th parallel, and ended in 1953 after international intervention pushed the front of the war back to near the 38th parallel.

Detail of the DMZ

In the Armistice Agreement of 27 July 1953, the DMZ was created as each side agreed to move their troops back 2,000 m (2,200 yards) from the front line, creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) goes through the center of the DMZ and indicates where the front was when the agreement was signed.

Owing to this theoretical stalemate, and genuine hostility between the North and the South, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the line, each side guarding against potential aggression from the other side. The armistice agreement explains exactly how many military personnel and what kind of weapons are allowed in the DMZ. Soldiers from both sides may patrol inside the DMZ, but they may not cross the MDL; ROK soldiers, however heavily armed, patrol under the aegis of military police, and have memorized each line of the armistice.[5] Sporadic outbreaks of violence have killed over 500 South Korean soldiers, 50 US soldiers and 250 soldiers from DPRK along the DMZ between 1953 and 1999.[6]

Daeseong-dong (also written Tae Sung Dong) and Kijŏng-dong were the only villages allowed by the armistice committee to remain within the boundaries of the DMZ.[7] Residents of Tae Sung Dong are governed and protected by the United Nations Command and are generally required to spend at least 240 nights per year in the village to maintain their residency.[7] In 2008, the village had a population of 218 people.[7] The villagers of Tae Sung Dong are direct descendants of people who owned the land before the 1950–53 Korean War.[8]

To continue to deter North Korean incursion, in 2014 the United States government exempted the Korean DMZ from its pledge to eliminate anti-personnel landmines.[9]

Joint Security Area

Main article: Joint Security Area
View of the North from the southern side of the JSA
Conference Row seen from the northern side of the JSA

Inside the DMZ, near the western coast of the peninsula, Panmunjom is the home of the Joint Security Area (JSA). Originally, it was the only connection between North and South Korea[10] but that changed in 2007 when a Korail train crossed the DMZ to the North on the new Donghae Bukbu Line built on the east coast of Korea.

There are several buildings on both the north and the south side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), and there have been some built on top of it. The JSA is the location where all negotiations since 1953 have been held, including statements of Korean solidarity, which have generally amounted to little except a slight decline of tensions. The MDL goes through the conference rooms and down the middle of the conference tables where the North Koreans and the United Nations Command (primarily South Koreans and Americans) meet face to face.

Within the JSA are a number of buildings for joint meetings called Conference Row. These are used for direct talks between the Korean War participants and parties to the armistice. Facing the Conference Row buildings are the North Korean Panmungak (English: Panmun Hall) and the South Korean Freedom House. In 1994, North Korea enlarged Panmungak by adding a third floor. In 1998, South Korea built a new Freedom House for its Red Cross staff and to possibly host reunions of families separated by the Korean War. The new building incorporated the old Freedom House Pagoda within its design.

Since 1953 there have been occasional confrontations and skirmishes within the JSA. The Axe murder incident in August 1976 involved the attempted trimming of a tree which resulted in two deaths (Captain Arthur Bonifas and First lieutenant Mark Barrett). Another incident occurred on 23 November 1984, when a Soviet tourist Vasily Matuzok (sometimes spelled Matusak), who was part of an official trip to the JSA (hosted by the North), ran across the MDL shouting that he wanted to defect.[11] North Korean troops immediately chased after him opening fire. Border guards on the South Korean side returned fire eventually surrounding the North Koreans as they pursued Matusak. One South Korean and three North Korean soldiers were killed in the action, and Matusak was not captured.[12]

In late 2009, South Korean forces in conjunction with the United Nations Command began renovation of its three guard posts and two checkpoint buildings within the JSA compound. Construction was designed to enlarge and modernize the structures. Work was undertaken a year after North Korea finished replacing four JSA guard posts on its side of the MDL.[13]

DMZ-related incidents and incursions

A portion of the North Korean DMZ seen from the Joint Security Area in January 1976

Since demarcation, the DMZ has had numerous cases of incidents and incursions by the North Koreans, although the North Korean government never acknowledges direct responsibility for any of these incidents.[14] This was particularly intense during the Korean DMZ Conflict (1966–1969) when a series of skirmishes along the DMZ resulted in the deaths of 43 American, 299 South Korean and 397 North Korean soldiers.[15] This included the Blue House Raid in 1968, an attempt to assassinate President Park Chung Hee at the Blue House.[16]

In 1976, in now declassified meeting minutes, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements told Henry Kissinger that there had been 200 raids or incursions into North Korea from the south, though not by the U.S. military.[17] Details of only a few of these incursions have become public, including raids by South Korean forces in 1967 that had sabotaged about 50 North Korean facilities.[18]

Operation Paul Bunyan, to remove a tree in front of the Bridge of No Return, takes place following the axe murder incident in August 1976.

Incursion tunnels

Entrance to the North Korean-dug 4th Infiltration Tunnel, Korean DMZ
See also: Tunnel warfare

Since 15 November 1974, the South has discovered that four tunnels crossing the DMZ had been dug by North Korea. This is indicated by the orientation of the blasting lines within each tunnel. Upon their discovery, North Korea claimed that the tunnels were for coal mining; however, no coal has been found in the tunnels, which are dug through granite. Some of the tunnel walls have been painted black to give the appearance of anthracite.[19]

The tunnels are believed to have been planned as a military invasion route by North Korea. Each shaft was large enough to permit the passage of approximately 2000 soldiers in one hour, though the tunnels are not wide enough for vehicles. The tunnels run in a north-south direction and do not have branches. Following each discovery, engineering within the tunnels has become progressively more advanced. For example, the third tunnel sloped slightly upwards as it progressed southward, to prevent water stagnation. Today, visitors from the south may visit the second, third and fourth tunnels through guided tours.[20]

First tunnel

The first of the tunnels was discovered on 20 November 1974, by a South Korean Army patrol, noticing steam rising from the ground. The initial discovery was met with automatic fire from North Korean soldiers. Five days later, during a subsequent exploration of this tunnel, US Navy Commander Robert M. Ballinger and ROK Marine Corps Major Kim Hah Chul were killed in the tunnel by a North Korean explosive device. The blast also wounded five Americans and one South Korean from the United Nations Command.

The tunnel, which was about 0.9 by 1.2 m (3 by 4 ft), extended more than 1 km (0.62 mi) beyond the MDL into South Korea. The tunnel was reinforced with concrete slabs and had electric power and lighting. There were weapon storage and sleeping areas. A narrow gauge railway with carts had also been installed. Estimates based on the tunnel's size suggest it would have allowed approximately 2000 soldiers to pass through it per hour.[21]

Second tunnel

The second tunnel was discovered on 19 March 1975. It is of similar length to the first tunnel. It is located between 50 and 160 m (160 and 520 ft) below ground, but is larger than the first, approximately 2 by 2 m (7 by 7 feet).

Third tunnel

The third tunnel was discovered on 17 October 1978. Unlike the previous two, the third tunnel was discovered following a tip from a North Korean defector. This tunnel is about 1,600 m (5,200 ft) long and about 73 m (240 ft) below ground.[22] Foreign visitors touring the South Korean DMZ may view inside this tunnel using a sloped access shaft.

Fourth tunnel

A fourth tunnel was discovered on 3 March 1990, north of Haean town in the former Punchbowl battlefield. The tunnel's dimensions are 2 by 2 m (7 by 7 feet), and it is 145 metres (476 ft) deep. The method of construction is almost identical in structure to the second and the third tunnels.[23]



North Korean Kijŏng-dong, seen from South Korea

Both North and South Korea maintain peace villages in sight of each other's side of the DMZ. In the South, Daeseong-dong is administered under the terms of the DMZ. Villagers are classed as Republic of Korea citizens, but are exempt from paying tax and other civic requirements such as military service. In the North, Kijŏng-dong features a number of brightly painted, poured-concrete multi-story buildings and apartments with electric lighting. These features represented an unheard of level of luxury for rural Koreans, north or south, in the 1950s. The town was oriented so that the bright blue roofs and white sides of the buildings would be the most distinguishing features when viewed from the border. However, based on scrutiny with modern telescopic lenses, it has been claimed the buildings are mere concrete shells lacking window glass or even interior rooms,[24][25] with the building lights turned on and off at set times and the empty sidewalks swept by a skeleton crew of caretakers in an effort to preserve the illusion of activity.[26]


South Korean Daeseong-dong and its flagpole
The world's fourth-tallest flagpole (160m) flying a North Korean flag over Kijŏng-dong near Panmunjom

In the 1980s, the South Korean government built a 98.4 m (323 ft) flagpole in Daeseong-dong, which flies a South Korean flag weighing 130 kilograms (287 pounds). In what some have called the "flagpole war," the North Korean government responded by building the 160 m (525 ft) Panmunjeom flagpole in Kijŏng-dong, only 1.2 km (0.7 mi) west of the border with South Korea. It flies a 270 kg (595 lb) flag of North Korea. As of 2014, the Panmunjeom flagpole is the fourth tallest in the world, after the Jeddah Flagpole in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at 170 m (558 ft), the Dushanbe Flagpole in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, at 165 m (541 ft) and the pole at the National Flag Square in Baku, Azerbaijan, which is 162 m (531 ft).[27][28]

Loudspeaker installations

From 1953 until 2004 both sides broadcast audio propaganda across the DMZ.[29] Massive loudspeakers mounted on several of the buildings delivered DPRK propaganda broadcasts directed towards the south as well as propaganda radio broadcasts across the border.[24] In 2004, the North and South agreed to end the broadcasts.[29]

In August 2015, a border incident occurred where two South Korean soldiers were wounded after stepping on landmines that had allegedly been laid on the southern side of the DMZ by North Korean forces near a ROK guard post.[30][31] Both North Korea and South Korea then resumed broadcasting propaganda by loudspeaker.[32] After four days of negotiations, on August 25, 2015 South Korea agreed to discontinue the broadcasts following a statement from North Korea's government expressing "regret" for the landmine incident.[33]

On 8 January 2016, in response to North Korea's supposed successful testing of a hydrogen bomb, South Korea resumed broadcasts directed at the north.[34] South Korea intends to upgrade its loudspeaker system in 2016.[35]


Both North and South Korea have held balloon propaganda leaflet campaigns since the Korean War.[36]

In recent years, mainly South Korean non-governmental organizations have been involved in launching balloons targeted at the DMZ and beyond.[37] Due to the winds, the balloons tend to fall near the DMZ where there are mostly North Korean soldiers to see the leaflets.[38] As with the loudspeakers, balloon operations were mutually agreed to be halted between 2004 and 2010.[39] It has been assessed that the activists' balloons may contribute to the decay of remaining cooperation between the Korean governments,[40] and the DMZ has become more militarized in recent years.[41]

Many North Korean leaflets during the Cold War gave instructions and maps to help the targeted South Korean soldiers in defecting. One of the leaflets found on the DMZ included a map of Cho Dae-hum's route of defection to North Korea across the DMZ. In addition to using balloons as a means of delivery, North Koreans have also used rockets to send leaflets to the DMZ.[42]

Korean Wall

According to the DPRK, between 1977 and 1979 the South Korean and United States authorities constructed a concrete wall along the DMZ. Dutch journalist and filmmaker Peter Tetteroo shot footage of a barrier which his North Korean guides said was the Korean Wall.[43] Various organisations, such as the DPRK tour guide company Korea Konsult claimed a wall was dividing Korea, saying that:

In the area south of the Military Demarcation Line, which cuts across Korea at its waist, there is a concrete wall which ... stretches more than 240 km (149 mi) from east to west, is 5–8 m (16–26 ft) high, 10–19 m (33–62 ft) thick at the bottom, and 3–7 m (10–23 ft) wide in the upper part. It is set with wire entanglements and dotted with gun embrasures, look-outs and varieties of military establishments.[44]
The Korean Wall in the Demilitarized Zone seen through binoculars from the North Korean side

In December 1999, Chu Chang-jun, North Korea's ambassador to China, repeated claims that a "wall" divided Korea. He said the south side of the wall is packed with soil, which permits access to the top of the wall and makes it effectively invisible from the south side. He also claimed that it served as a bridgehead for any northward invasion.[45][46]

The United States and South Korea deny the wall's existence, although they do claim there are anti-tank barriers along some sections of the DMZ.[47]

In the RT documentary 10 Days in North Korea, the crew shot footage of the wall as seen from the North, apparently confirming its existence, and in addition to providing a clear visual, the narration describes it as a "5 metre high wall stretching from east to west".[48]


Panmunjeom 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 near a railroad connecting the two Koreas.

The railway, which connects Seoul and Pyongyang, was called the Gyeongui Line before division in the 1940s. Currently the South uses the original name, but the North refers to the route as the P'yŏngbu Line. The railway line has been mainly used to carry materials and South Korean workers to the Kaesong Industrial Region. Its reconnection has been seen as part of the general improvement in the relations between North and South in the early part of this century. However, in November 2008 North Korean authorities closed the railway amid growing tensions with the South.[49] Following the death of former South Korean President, Kim Dae-jung, conciliatory talks were held between South Korean officials and a North Korean delegation who attended Kim's funeral. In September 2009, the Kaesong rail and road crossing was reopened.[50]

The road at Panmunjeom, which was known historically as Highway One in the South, was originally the only access point between the two countries on the Korean Peninsula. Passage is comparable to the strict movements that occurred at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Both North and South Korea's roads end in the JSA; the highways do not quite join as there is a 20 cm (8 in) concrete line that divides the entire site. People given the rare permission to cross this border must do so on foot before continuing their journey by road.

The Donghae-bukbu line on Korea's east coast. The road and rail link was built for South Koreans visiting the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region in the North.

In 2007, on the east coast of Korea, the first train crossed the DMZ on the new Donghae Bukbu (Tonghae Pukpu) Line. The new rail crossing was built adjacent to the road which took South Koreans to Mount Kumgang Tourist Region, a region that has significant cultural importance for all Koreans. More than one million civilian visitors crossed the DMZ until the route was closed following the shooting of a 53-year-old South Korean tourist in July 2008.[51] After a joint investigation was rebuffed by the North, the Republic of Korea government suspended tours to the resort. Since then the resort and the Donghae Bukbu Line have effectively been closed by the North.[52][53]

Nature reserve

In the past half century, the Korean DMZ has been a deadly place for humans, making habitation impossible. Only around the village of Panmunjeom and more recently the Dong Bukbu Line on Korea's east coast have there been regular incursions by people.[54][55]

This natural isolation along the 250 km (160 mi) length of the DMZ has created an involuntary park which is now recognized as one of the most well-preserved areas of temperate habitat in the world.[56]

The endangered Amur Leopard that may have found unlikely protection within the Korean DMZ

Several endangered animal and plant species now exist among the heavily fortified fences, landmines and listening posts. These include the extremely rare red-crowned crane (a staple of Asian art), and the white-naped crane as well as, potentially, the extremely rare Siberian tiger,[56] Amur leopard and Asiatic black bear. Ecologists have identified some 2,900 plant species, 70 types of mammals and 320 kinds of birds within the narrow buffer zone.[56] Additional surveys are now being conducted throughout the region.[57]

The DMZ owes its varied biodiversity to its geography, which crosses mountains, prairies, swamps, lakes and tidal marshes. Environmentalists hope that the DMZ will be conserved as a wildlife refuge, with a well-developed set of objective and management plans vetted and in place. In 2005, CNN founder and media mogul Ted Turner, on a visit to North Korea, said that he would financially support any plans to turn the DMZ into a peace park and a UN-protected World Heritage Site.[58]

In September 2011, South Korea submitted a nomination form to Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) in UNESCO for designation of 435 km2 (168 sq mi) in the southern part of the DMZ below the Military Demarcation Line, as well as 2,979 km2 (1,150 sq mi) in privately controlled areas, as a Biosphere Reserve according to the Statutory Framework of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.[59] MAB National Committee of the Republic of Korea mentioned only southern part of DMZ to be nominated since there was no response from Pyongyang when it requested Pyongyang to push jointly. North Korea is a member nation of the international coordinating council of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme, which designates Biosphere Reserves.[60]

North Korea opposed the application as a violation of the armistice agreement during the council's meeting in Paris on July 9 to 13. The South Korean government's attempt to designate the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve was turned down at UNESCO's MAB council meeting in Paris in July 2012. Pyongyang expressed its opposition by sending letters to 32 council member countries, except for Korea, and the UNESCO headquarters a month prior to the meeting. At the council meeting, Pyongyang said the designation violated the Armistice Agreement.[61] It also said that DMZ is under jurisdiction of South Korea and UNC, therefore it is necessary to gain consent from UNC over the designation. Despite the effort put by Republic of Korea, on 12 July, the MAB International Coordinating Council (ICC) deferred South Korea's September 2011 application.

See also


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