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On your visit to the DMZ from either side of the border you cannot fail to notice two massive flagpoles and flags, one North Korean and the other South Korean. I have written a separate review on these flags –Mine is bigger than yours – The Flagpole War . In that review I also mentioned how the Korean War, with the signing of the Armistice Agreement in 1953, in the main, converted from one of direct military combat to one of propaganda. In addition to direct propaganda, one-upmanship and brinkmanship have long (since 1953) been key components in gaining the upper hand and the minds of people on the Korean Peninsula and in the wider world. Every opportunity to provoke and antagonise the enemy is grabbed by both sides. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango.

The two large flagpoles and flags are a classic example of one-upmanship and certainly from North Korea’s perspective an example of provocation and aggression on the part of the South which erected its flagpole first.

When the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room, right on the border in the centre of the Joint Security Area (see my separate review) first opened there was a shelf of small silk flags – one belonging to each of the 18 countries in the United Nations Command plus the UN flag – located close to the southern door of the room.

In 2003 two North Korean soldiers in response to statements made by President Bush and in a shameful act of provocation entered the room and deliberately defaced the flags of South Korea and the United States.

The shelf of flags was subsequently removed and replaced with Plexiglas-covered board behind which the flags are now displayed (pictured above).

I wonder what the two soldiers in my picture are thinking – are they eyeing up us tourists or are they thinking about how they could get out, unnoticed, with the current flag display? To protect the innocent, I should say that these two soldiers look a tad young to have been the naughty soldiers responsible for defacing the flags in 2003.

Another interesting story relates to the size of flags used at early negotiation meetings which were held in tents prior to the construction of the Armistice Talks Hall and other more permanent structures.

In the early days, the story goes that the Southern side, one night, sawed down the legs of the Northern delegate chairs such that at the next meeting the latter were forced to sit lower than their Southern counterparts making them feel compelled to walk out of the meeting to save face. At a subsequent meeting Southern delegates arrived with a small table flag while the Northern side had none. At the next meeting the Northern side arrived with a larger flag than the southern side. At the next meeting the Southern flag was larger and so this continued until a special series of meetings were held just to discuss the size of flags as they had, by that stage, grown to large to fit within the tents!

These meeting eventually set the permitted size for flags for use in meetings and flags have remained about the same size since though with some variation in terms of thickness of trim, size of truck on top of the little flagpoles and such like.

This battle of wills and one-upmanship sounds like great fun and indeed it might be were it not that the DMZ and the JSA is one of the world’s most tense military locations, truly a time-bomb that can explode at any second. As anyone with kids will tell you, playful banter and fun can all to easily end in tears. Over the years the JSA has seen nearly 1000 fracas’s ranging from fistfights to shouting matches to a number of deaths.

Quite literally a desecrated or inappropriately sized flag has the potential to re-ignite the Korean War.


This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on my visit to Panmunjom (DMZ), North Korea. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Dining in the DMZ – or to start this loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – If war resumes leave the area as soon as possible!


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One thought on “Little flags and naughty soldiers?

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