At the end of World War II, following an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union the Korean Peninsula was divided, roughly in half, along the 38th parallel north.
The northern part came under the administration of the Soviet Union while the southern part was administered by the United States. In 1948, on the creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) the 38th parallel north became the de facto international border between two new countries. While two independent countries were created each continued to rely on its former administrator.
While both countries (as opposed to their administrators) wanted reunification it is generally accepted by most people, but not the DPRK, that the North, under Kim Il-Sung, made the first military move towards that renuification with a major invasion of the South on 25 June 1950. Three years later and after the death of nearly three million people in the Korean War a truce was called and an armistice agreement was signed on 27 July 1953.
That armistice, among other things, established a 4km wide buffer zone (the Demilitarised Zone or DMZ) running across the Korean Peninsula (250kms) close to the 38th parallel north again dividing the peninsula into North and South Korea. A Military Demarcation Line (MDL) runs down the centre of the DMZ and is the official borderline between the two Koreas.
The armistice agreement also provided for the establishment of a Joint Security Area (JSA), a small area on the actual border within the DMZ where both sides could (and still do) meet for negotiations. In simple terms little changed despite the tremendous losses incurred by both sides during the war.
North Korea did not, and does not, accept the division of the peninsula and all references to Korea within the DPKR relate to the full peninsula. For North Korea all that is needed is the removal of foreign forces from the south of the country and peace and happiness will reign in a unified Korea.
The village of Panmunjom was destroyed during the Korean War and has not been rebuilt though the buildings associated with the armistice negotiations and signing are located at the edge of the former village within the DMZ. Today Panmunjom is generally used to refer to the area of the former village and the Joint Security Area (JSA) a little further south on the actual border where the soldiers of North and South still stand menacingly face to face as they have since the armistice paused hostilities in 1953. The armistice did not end the Korean War and officially North and South Korea remain at war.
Approaching from a north, a visit to the DMZ for 99.9% of visitors (including me) means a visit to the area around Panmunjom. Opportunities to visit outside the Panmunjom area are, for the average tourist, few and far between. Likewise, approaching from the south visitors are restricted to a similarly (actually smaller) area in the southern part of the DMZ to the south of Panmunjom though some uncovered North Korean tunnels are generally included in a tour from the south. Of course these tunnels are not referred to on a visit from the north as, presumably, they do not exist! As with the soldiers at the DMZ, visitors can often “view” each other at the border but again, as with the soldiers, interaction between visitors in the JSA is forbidden and indeed visits are coordinated between North and South such that interaction will not occur.
Our tour of the DMZ, which lasted about 3 hours all up, was part of a two day excursion which also included nearby Kaesong and Nampo, a little further north.
Out first stop was immediately on entering the DMZ where we stopped at the Visitors Centre and were initial briefings are provided. From here we continued a short distance to visit the buildings where negotiations were held in 1953 and where the actual armistice was signed. Being within the North Korean controlled side of the DMZ visitors from the south are unable to visit this area.
From here we continued on to the Joint Security Area where negotiations/meetings between North and South have taken place since 1953. Having completed our inspections here lunch was in order and this was duly provided in a restaurant within the DMZ before we headed north again.
Given the generally caustic state of relations between North and South Korea (aka the US and the South Korean Governments as, officially, North Koreans hold no ill feeling toward their brothers and sisters in the south with whom one day soon they will be reunited) the whole area exuded an air of laxity and openness not expected in any military area let alone along the border between two countries officially at war. Of course this apparent air of laxity and openness is entirely artificial and you should not step out of line here – accidents can and do happen here though I don’t believe any have involved tourists.
We were under the strict control of guides, cameras and the Korean People’s Army for every second we remained in the DMZ. Additionally, while we did not see even one person, military or otherwise on the Southern side within the Joint Security Area, there is no doubt that we were closely monitored by the visible banks of cameras, cameras unseen and South Korean soldiers out of view on the southern side of the Military Demarcation Line.
A final word of advice
Should war resume while you are visiting the DMZ, leave as soon as possible via the northern or southern exit!
This blog entry is the first in a group (loop) of reviews on Panmunjom and the DMZ in North Korea which I recommend you read in a particular order starting with my next entry – The Reunification Highway.