The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

The DMZ 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 (155 miles) long and approximately 4 km (2.5 miles) wide, and is the most heavily armed border in the world.

The 38th parallel north — which cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half — was the original boundary between the U.S.-controlled and Soviet-controlled areas of Korea at the end of World War II. Upon the creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea in 1948, it became a de facto international border and one of the tensest fronts in the Cold War.

Both the North and the South remained heavily dependent on their sponsor states — the Soviet Union and the United States, respectively — from 1948 through to the outbreak of the Korean War. The conflict, which claimed over 3 million lives and saw the Korean Peninsula effectively divided along ideological lines, commenced in 1950 with a Soviet-sponsored DPRK invasion across the DMZ, and ended in 1953 after Chinese intervention pushed the front of the war back to near the 38th parallel. In the ceasefire of July 27, 1953, the DMZ was created as each side agreed in the armistice to move their troops back 2,000 meters from the front line, creating a buffer zone four kilometres wide. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) goes right down the center of the DMZ and indicates exactly where the front was when the agreement was signed. The armistice agreement was never followed by a peace treaty and technically the two Koreas are still at war.

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 itself. Soldiers from both sides do patrols inside the DMZ, but they may not cross the MDL.


Imjingak, and sometimes in English called the Imjingak “resort”, is a strange park located on the banks of the Imjin River in the city of Paju, South Korea. This is the first stop on any tour of the DMZ and typically tourists are aggregated into a much larger bus for transport into the DMZ. The park was built to console those from North Korea who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends and families because of the division of Korea. The park has many statues and monuments regarding the Korean War. Imjingak is where the Freedom Bridge lies. The Freedom bridge does not actually cross the Imjin river, but it is a bridge which was used by refugees from North Korea. It crosses a stream adjacent to the Imjin river and at the far end contains prayers posted to the wall.

The Tunnels

Starting on November 15, 1974, South Korea discovered four tunnels leading under the DMZ, by use of water-filled pipes dug vertically into the ground near areas of suspected tunnelling activity. The first of the tunnels is believed to be about 45 meters below surface, with a total length of about 3.5 km, and penetrating over 1 km into the DMZ! When the first tunnel was discovered, it featured electric lines and lamps, and railways and paths for vehicles. The second was discovered on March 19, 1975, and is of similar length and between 50 and 160 meters below ground. The third tunnel was discovered on October 17, 1978. Like the previous two, the third tunnel was discovered following a tip-off from a North Korean defector who wanted to prove his authenticity. This tunnel is about 1,600 meters long and about 150 meters below ground. The fourth tunnel was discovered on March 3, 1990. It is almost identical in structure to the second and the third tunnel.

The north-south directions of the four tunnels, the fact that they do not branch, the progressively more advanced planning of each one (for example, the third tunnel slopes upward slightly as it progresses southward, so that water does not stagnate), and the orientation of the blasting lines within each one indicate that North Korea dug the tunnels, and that their purpose was for invasion, and not coal mining, as the North claimed upon their discovery (no coal can be found in the tunnels, which are dug through granite, but some of the tunnel walls were at some point painted black to give the appearance of coal). The tunnels are each large enough to permit the passage of an entire division in one hour.

I took a tour of the third tunnel which is only 44 km (or less than 1 hours car drive) from Seoul and was discovered near the armistice village of Panmunjeom. When you first get there, its apparent that they have made this into a major tourist attraction. Buses are lined up outside and you are treated to a 5-10 minute video that details the nature of the DMZ and its purpose.

There are numerous exhibits including those shown below that detail the history of interactions and tension between North and South Korea. They include presidential assassination attempts by North Korean agents and as well as their success in blowing up a South Korean airliner on the eve of the Seoul Olympics. You can also get an opportunity to see a scale model of the entire area and some of the other key parts of the DMZ.

No pictures are allowed in the tunnel but I have attached a map below which shows a schematic of the tunnel. There are a few things that are notable. First, the tunnels are really small. Apparently North Koreans are a full 7 inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts – probably due to their lack of food and nutrition. As such, you have to wear a yellow hard hat and crouch down to get through the tunnel. The walls are painted black as part of the North Korean deception that they were digging for coal and there are holes in the wall where dynamite is placed to carve out the path. Finally, at the end of the tunnel the South Koreans have laid barbed wire and installed 3 concrete doors. These were placed to protect tourists from the potential of North Korean gas attacks!

Upon your exit from the tunnel, you can peruse the adjoining curios store that will give you an opportunity to buy all sorts of knick-knacks to remind you of your visit. Some of the most intriguing sovenirs include pieces of barbed wire, DMZ t-shirts and even DMZ rice!

Villages in the DMZ

Within the DMZ there are two villages: one run by the North and the other by the South. Daeseong-dong, found on the southern side of the DMZ, is a traditional village and strictly controlled by the South Korean government. For instance, one must have ancestral connections to the village in order to live there. These restrictions serve to keep the population of the village very small. In the North, Gijeong-dong, or as it is called in North Korea,Peace Village has only a small caretaker population. Through the armistice agreement the North felt that it should be allowed a town within the borders of the DMZ since the South already had one. UN troops call thisPropaganda 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 no glass within the windows of the buildings. In the past, North Korean propaganda was sent out by loudspeaker across to Daeseong-dong for as much as 20 hours a day, and reciprocal pop music and South Korean exhortations blasted back. These broadcasts ceased by mutual agreement in 2004.

During the 1980s, the South Korean government built a 98.4 meter (328 ft) tall flagpole in Daeseong-dong. The North Korean government responded by building a taller one — the tallest in the world at 157.5 meters (525 ft) – in Gijeong-dong. The North Korean flag at the top weighs around 270 kg (595 lb) when dry and must be taken down the instant it starts raining, as the tower cannot support its weight when it is wet. Our tour guide said its takes over 30 minutes to bring the flag down!

Except in the area around the truce village of Panmunjeom and more recently on the Donghae Bukbu Line on the east coast, people for the most part have not entered the DMZ in the last 50 years. This has created one of the most well-preserved pieces of land in the world. Environmentalists hope that if reunification occurs the former DMZ will become a wildlife refuge. However, there will be significant obstacles to maintaining the site because of the high concentration of land mines across the area. In fact, we were told land mines litter most of the DMZ and we were told not to wander from the tour bus.

Dora Observatory

The Dora Observatory was built by the ministry of National Defense on September 8th, 1986. We could see the Propaganda Village made by North Korea in the DMZ and as far north as the city of Gaesong. This is the nearest point to North Korea from South Korea. To get there we crossed the Freedom Bridge which is located about 2 km to the north of Mun-san. It is the only road that links the south and north at Imjingak. It was originally the Gyonguei-sun railway bridge and rebuilt into a road bridge. From the deck, you can see the Propaganda Village and the North and South Korean flag poles.

When you get to the observation tower you notice that there are rows of binoculars that say for military use only. Of course nowadays the platform is full of tourists from all over the world shoving 500 won coins into them to see North Korea! The rules are quite strict as it related to taking photos. It is strictly forbidden unless it is behind a yellow line as the North Korean soldiers may mistake it for a sniper rifle and shoot an unsuspecting tourist. Of course, some Chinese tourists took photos at the edge anyway and proceeded to have their cameras confiscated by the soldiers patroling the area.

You could also see a massive complex Hyundai is building in North Korea to manufacture kitchenware and other household goods. Apparently the founder of Hyundai was born in North Korea and is a big proponent of communication and investment in North Korea to bridge the gap between the two sides. He apparently gave 1,001 cows to North Korea as a gift to the country and had them herded across the DMZ! His more recent move is to fund a gigantic complex in North Korea that will leverage local labor and bring jobs to the region. Hyundai executives travel frequently across the DMZ to supervise construction. When Hyundai executives cross over, they receive military escort and cover up their license plates – presumably so locals think they are North Korean military.

Panmunjeom / Joint Security Area (JSA)

Inside the DMZ, near the western coast of the peninsula, is a place called Panmunjeom, home of the Joint Security Area. Here is the only place where North and South connect.  There are a number of buildings on both the north and the south side of the MDL, and a few which are built right on top of the MDL. The JSA is the location where all negotiations since 1953 have been held, including a number of statements of Korean solidarity, which have generally amounted to little except a slight decline of tensions. The MDL goes right through the conference rooms, right 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.Though generally calm, the DMZ has been the scene of much sabre-rattling between the two Koreas over the years. A number of small skirmishes have occurred within the Joint Security Area since 1953. The Axe Murder Incident in August 1976 involved the attempted chopping down of a poplar tree which resulted in two deaths and Operation Paul Bunyan. Before this time, the soldiers of both sides were permitted to go back and forth across the MDL inside of the JSA. That stopped as a result of this incident.

Another incident occurred later when a Soviet dignitary, who was part of an official trip to the JSA (hosted by the North), ran across the MDL yelling that he wanted to defect. North Korean troops opened fire and chased him across the line. South Korean troops, protecting the defector, fired back and eventually surrounded the North Koreans. One South Korean soldier was killed in the incident. The defector expressed joy in his successful attempt, but was saddened by the loss of life. Since this incident, the North Korean soldiers face one another so defectors cannot come upon them from behind. They are ordered to shoot anyone who attempts to defect before they get to the line.

Tongil (Unification Village)

The Tongil (Unification) Village in the northern area of Civilian Control Line and has 133 families and a total of approximately 500 residents. The agricultural marketing center here sells local farm produce. You can taste uncurdled Jangdan bean curd (sundubu), seasoned mountain herbs, maeuntang (hot soup) and so on, which show their notable local color.

Dorasan Station

Dorason Station is the northernmost international station located over 700 meters from the South boundary line of DMZ. It is not only a symbolic place of division but also, with the completion of the Gyeong-ui (Seoul-Sinuiju) railroad line connection, a gateway of interchange between the North and South. This station was built as a symbol of eventual reunification between North and South Korea. Its symbolism was so striking that the US President, George Bush, joined the South Korean President in giving an inaugural speech. When completed the rail line will allow South Koreans to travel across Asia and all the way to Paris! As a nice souvenir, when you enter the station, you can have a Dorasan immigration stamp put into your passport. Presumably when the North and South are finally reunified, this stamp allows you to go to North Korea! I plan on holding off on my visit for any time soon…

Apparently the North Koreans loved the look of the station, they asked that Hyundai build its North Korean factory to the same specs and designs! Frankly, I think a factory designed to look like a train station would be strange!


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