When Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula ended upon its defeat in WWII, the Soviet army advanced from the north, the US army from the south. Roughly dividing the peninsula in half, the 38th parallel marked the border between the administration zones of the USSR and the USA respectively.
The stated intention was that the country be reunified, but as an ‘interim’ measure, in 1948 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, informally North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, informally South Korea) were established and foreign forces withdrew from the peninsula.
The United Nations dithered. Negotiations for reunification stalled. In 1950, North Korea attacked with overwhelming force, taking over most of the south in short time. The UN, led principally by the USA, sent forces to join the South Korean army and succeeded in pushing the Northerners back.
So far back that requnification from the south looked possible. But China sent masses of troops and the tide turned again. UN forces staged a fighting retreat and world powers, seeking to avoid further bloodshed, negotiated a ceasefire.
Under the armistice agreement, a Military Demarkation Line (MDL) was agreed, roughly following the 38th parallel in accordance with the post-WWII position. Cease-fire lines, known as the Northern and Southern Limit Lines respectively, were set at two kilometres either side. The area between was agreed as a demilitarised zone (DMZ).
And so it remains today. Officially still at war, the peninsula divided.
It’s possible to visit the DMZ from Seoul, and lots of people do.
Our first stop was the Freedom Bridge built over the Imjingak River close to the Southern Limit Line to enable the return of 12,733 prisoners of war in the first prisoner exchange following the signing of the armistice.
During WWII through to the end of the Korean War, some five million people fled the north to avoid first the Soviet army and then communist rule. After the 1953 cease-fire, refugees built an altar near the Freedom Bridge looking across to North Korea, where they would come to pray for loved ones across the line.
The original refugees are mostly deceased now, but the remaining few and many descendants come here every Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day) to honour their ancestors and relatives left behind.
Along the barbed wire topped fence, they tie ribbons expressing their sorrow at the separation and hopes for reunion with relatives in the north.
Nearby, the Miari-gogae Monument honours the approximately 100,000 South Korean civilians abducted and transported north during the War. Despite continued efforts by the South Korean government, many have never been repatriated and presumably most will now have passed away without seeing their home places again.
There’s also a memorial to the victims of sexual slavery perpetrated by the Japanese army during WWII. The one on the right is from North Korea and expresses the sorrow of those who, although freed from the Japanese, could not return to their home in the north due to the national division.
US President Woodrow Wilson is honoured as the first international leader to commit troops on the ground following the United Nations acceptance that the North had rejected its call for the invasion to cease. The US also committed the most troops and strategically led the successful expulsion of North Korean forces from South Korea.
There’s also one for the US troops killed in the conflict.
From here we travelled to Dorasan Observatory, a high point almost on the Southern Limit Line of the DMZ. From here you can peer down into the DMZ on the other side of the razor wire.
A strip along the border fence has been cleared for security reasons. Beyond that, the zone has largely returned to forest. Ironically, the absence of human intervention has created a biodiversity wonderland, albeit blanketed with land mines. The DMZ is recognised as one of the best preserved tracts of temperate habitat in the world, home to 6,000 species of animals and plants. Some 100 endangered species have been identified, including the red crowned crane, Korean fox, asiatic bear and potentially the extremely rare Siberian tiger.
On the other side, North Korean guard towers emerge from the trees.
In the 1980s, in what has been nicknamed the “flagpole war”, the South erected a 100 metre high flagpole near the DMZ border.
The North saw this as provocative and promptly erected a 160 metre flagpole. At the time, it was the second tallest in the world. It’s now number six. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s taller than South Korea’s.
The flag weighs 270kg. When it rains, it weighs so much it has to be taken down due to the risk of structural damage to the pole.
Around the pole you can see a village. North Korea calls it Kijong-dong (Peace Village). South Korea calls it Propaganda Village. They say it is a fake and no one lives there. On some of the building, the windows are painted on. All the lights go on at the same time every night. Light shines brightly in the windows of the upper floors but is dim lower down, suggesting the buildings are empty shells without floors or walls. Not very convincing.
From the observatory you can also see the Joint Security Area. Built exactly over the Military Demarcation Line, it was first used to facilitate prisoner exchanges over the ‘Bridge of No Return’, so named because prisoners would be brought to the bridge and given the ultimatum to either cross or remain, but if they crossed they could never return.
It also includes buildings where the two sides meet for diplomatic talks and until 1991 was the site of military negotiations between North Korea and the United Nations Command. The MDL runs exactly through the middle of the rooms and down the middle of the conference tables.
Until just a few months ago, it was possible to visit the JSA as part of a strictly supervised tour. But that all changed on 18 July 2023 thanks to US Army Private Travis King. King was being sent back to the US and faced dishonourable discharge after being convicted of assault and property damage offences in South Korea during his deployment. Rather than return to the US to face the music, he joined a civilian tour group to the DMZ and while at the JSA, broke away from the group and legged it into North Korea.
In September 2023, he was expelled from North Korea and is now back in the US awaiting trial on multiple charges. Since that incident, the JSA has been closed to tours, so all you can do is view the area from afar.
Our last stop actually took us under the DMZ. Beginning in the 1960s, North Korea started to dig tunnels under the DMZ, assumed to be to facilitate an invasion by ground troops. After denying they existed at all, North Korea claimed the South Koreans built the tunnels as propaganda or that they were coal mines, despite the total absence of coal in the area.
Commonly known as infiltration tunnels, the South Koreans also call them Tunnels of Aggression.
Two tunnels were discovered in 1975, a third in 1978 and a fourth in 1990. All have been closed by rock fill at the Military Demarkation Line but the South Korean side of the third infiltration tunnel is open for visitors.
More than 70 metres underground, it runs for just over 1.6km from some point north of the DMZ through to more than 400 metres into the South’s side. It is said to be wide enough to allow 30,000 troops per hour to surge through.
It’s not for the tall or the claustrophobic. Although it’s 195cm high, structural supports for visitor safety reduce the height to just 120cm, and it’s 210cm wide. Visitors reach the tunnel via a 350 metre, 11 degree incline tunnel from the surface and can then shuffle, stooped over, for another half kilometre to the point where the tunnel has been blocked. And then back again.
No photos are allowed so we have only this statue from up top, once again symbolising a desire for reunification.
Interestingly, although reunification is national policy and is assumed by the rest of the western world to be the wish of the South Korean people, we are told many young people don’t support it. They fear it would cause an economic drain on the south, with government money flowing to prop up the impoverished north. They are wary of the potential social attitudes of those who have known no system but communism. They have lived with North Korea’s sabre rattling all their lives, to the point where the risks of reunification seem more real than the likelihood of war.
Only time will tell if a permanent solution is possible. And in the meantime, soldiers face off against each other across the DMZ, one of the most heavily militarised regions in the world.