On the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone:
Former US President Bill Clinton famously described the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as “the scariest place on earth” during a 2003 visit. Others have described it as the most dangerous spot on the planet…
With descriptions like that, a visit is pretty much compulsory, no?
The highlight of the DMZ is the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is also frequently referred to simply as Panmunjom after a village that used to be located there. This is the area where the two Koreas face off against each other the most dramatically and where the armistice that froze (not ended) the Korean War was signed.
The Joint Security Area is located a few miles outside of Kaesong and you know when you are getting close because the number of tank barriers and North Korean soldiers around starts to dramatically increase:
The first stop for visitors from North Korea to the DMZ is at a small staging area where your vehicle is checked for explosives. While you’re waiting, you’ll be treated to a short lecture on the history of the conflict and the dynamics of the current situation (the objectivity of this lecture could be questioned by some):
Just outside of the staging area is this narrow road that leads to the border and this mammoth arch. The arch is not decorative. It is designed to come crashing down onto the road with just a small explosive charge, slowing down any invading force.
I got in trouble for taking this picture, so I hope you appreciate it:
And, in fact, the entire road to the border is lined with these cement blocks. You’ll notice that there is even a small ramp that will allow them to slide easily into the road after the explosive charge is detonated… Why not just go around the road? Land mines. Millions of them:
There is a buffer zone that extends out 8 kilometers from both sides of the border and North and South Korea have agreed to strong restrictions on who can be here and what types of activities can take place here. However, there is some farming that takes place in this DMZ buffer zone on both sides of the border:
When one arrives to within 2 kilometers of the border, things change. Neither side is permitted to be active within two kilometers of each other’s border (with a few minor exceptions) and so the land has reverted to its wild, unspoiled state. This has had the effect of creating a pristine nature reserve that is full of endangered species, thriving in the absence of humanity.
On the North Korean side, one passes by this serious-looking electric fence (undoubtedly with land mines all around it) to enter the wild area:
The wild area:
A view of South Korea from North Korea… The border is precisely in the middle of those blue buildings below:
Interestingly, to avoid unpleasantness, the two Koreas stagger visits so that there are never visitors from either side at the Joint Security Area at the same time. So, whether you are visiting from North Korea or South Korea, the opposing side will always look deserted:
Obviously, there are a large number of North Korean soldiers around:
They may look stern, but a pack of Marlboros will do wonders for relations between the West and North Korea and the soldiers will find it in themselves to endure a picture with a decadent Westerner:
Nearby to the site pictured above, is the building (now the North Korea Peace Museum) where the Korean Armistice Agreement documents were formally signed. The “museum” mostly has pictures of American soldiers surrendering along with details on the North Korean story line that it was the Americans and the South Koreans that invaded North Korea and not the other way around. Interestingly, some of the flags and documents from the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement are present and carefully preserved:
Although small skirmishes along the border were initiated by both sides, the reality is that it was North Korea that invaded South Korea and this was far from a spontaneous action. It had been on Kim Il-sung’s mind for quite some time…
Kim Il-sung asked Stalin to approve his plan for the invasion of South Korea as far back as 1949. However, Stalin rejected this as he did not want a conflict with the United States. The Soviet development of atomic weapons changed the balance of power though and made Stalin feel more confident. So, Stalin finally gave a green light to Kim Il-sung’s invasion plan on the condition that he obtain prior agreement from China’s Mao Zedong before kicking things off. So, Kim Il-sung visited with Mao Zedong on 13 May 1950, to ask for his support. Mao Zedong eventually agreed to support North Korea if the United States entered the war in Korea as he expected aid from the Soviet Union and as recognition for North Korea’s support for him during the civil war in China.
Thus, on 25 June 1950, 135,000 soldiers and more than 100 T-34 tanks of the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea in a massive dawn invasion.
Within several days, Seoul had been overrun and the North Korean People’s Army was rapidly pushing south.
President Truman took immediate action to stem this invasion and, under a UN resolution, took the United States into the war.
Initially termed a “police action”, it quickly escalated into a major conflict. Led primarily by the United States, fifteen countries responded to the UN’s call with combat forces to aid South Korea (there is a moving “thank you” display in the War Memorial of Korea located in Seoul to the nations that came to South Korea’s assistance during this time) in repelling the invasion, all under the UN command of General Douglas MacArthur.
Combat operations were fluid at first with the North on the offensive at all times. The US and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces eventually established a strong perimeter around the large and important port of Busan in the extreme southeast of the country. From there, high-level military planning and logistics led to MacArthur’s audacious amphibious landing at Incheon which split the country and its communications in half, virtually destroying the North Korean People’s Army. This action brought the UN into full control of the war and their momentum led them all the way up to the Yalu River and the border with Communist China.
On 25 October 1950, US and UN troops were taken by surprise when hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers poured across the border in great force, with two army groups comprising 18 full divisions. In a period of tremendously intense fighting under terrible conditions, American forces were forced to retreat from their northern positions to a line roughly equal to where the fighting had begun – the 38th parallel.
At this point, both sides dug in for 2 1/2 brutal years of trench-style warfare reminiscent of World War I.
The US ultimately failed to achieve the stated aim of the Potsdam Conference – of uniting North and South Korea into one country. However, the American troops did accomplish what they were sent to do, and that was to save South Korea.
It should be noted as well that the US successfully fought China, and to a lesser degree, the Soviet Union on the Korean peninsula without expanding the war into a potentially disastrous larger conflict (75% of aerial combat engaged in by US airmen over the skies of Korea was with the Soviet air force).
Estimated casualties and losses in the fighting between 1950-1953:
United Nations Command (US, UK, ROK, etc.)
Total: 178,426 dead and 32,925 missing
Total wounded: 566,434
North Korea, China, Soviet Union
Total dead: 367,283–750,282
Total wounded: 686,500–789,000
South Korean civilians
North Korean civilians
Although hostilities officially ceased with the armistice of 27 July 1953, the North and South are still technically at war.