The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a strip of land that runs along and through the 38th parallel north, dividing the Korean peninsular roughly in half and is the most heavily guarded border in the world.
'Recently there was a bush fire that started in the north and came south and it set off a lot of landmines... it really gave me perspective to how many there are out there'
– Pvt. Ferguson
The outer fencline of the DMZ
The 38th parallel was the original boundary between the US and Soviet administration areas at the end of World War II. Then in 1948, with the creation of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) - informally know as North Korea – and the Republic of Korea (ROK) – informally known as South Korea – the 38th parallel became a de facto international border.
On the 25th of June 1950 a surprise invasion by the north, backed by China, led to an ideological war lasting just over three years and cost over three million lives. With the help of international intervention the north was eventually pushed back to near the 38th parallel.
On the 27th of July 1953 the DMZ was created with the signing of the Armistice Agreement with both sides agreeing to move their troops back 2km from the front line, creating a 4km wide, 241km long buffer zone. The agreement also sets clear conditions of exactly what kind of personnel and weaponry is allowed in the DMZ.
Through the middle of the DMZ is the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), indicated by white posts that are placed roughly 100 meters apart to represent exactly where the front line was when the agreement was signed.
Panmunjom. ROK soldiers face North Korea.
Inside the DMZ near the western coast of the peninsular is Panmunjom, home of the Joint Security Area (JSA). Several buildings here are built on the MDL and serve as conference rooms for talks between both the DPRK and the United Nations Command (UNC), which is mostly made up South Koreans and Americans.
While talks usually last no more than three or four hours, one talk is said to have lasted around 11 hours as neither side wanted to use the toilet in case it showed weakness. This talk is now jokingly referred to as 'the bladder wars'. Since then there is now a compulsory 15 minute break every 3 hours.
The 'Axe Attacks'
Previously in the JSA the north and south had watch towers on either side of the MDL and were able to move freely between them. This changed however after several confrontations, most notably the axe attacks on August 18th 1986 that resulted in the deaths of two US soldiers, Captain Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lieutenant Mark Barrett.
The attack happened when a group of five Korean Service Corps who were escorted by UNC security personnel were sent to trim a 30m poplar tree near the bridge of no return that obscured the view of UNC checkpoint 3 (CP#3) from Observation Post 5 (OP#5). CP#3 was only visible from OP#5 during winter months and during the summer months only the top of OP#3 was visible from another UNC post, OP#2.
OP#3's close proximity to the bridge of no return (which crossed the MDL) led to several attempts by the Korean Peoples Army (KPA, North Koreas army) to grab UNC personnel and take them into North Korean territory.
The Bridge of No Return | Used as a route for prisoner exchange. Once crossed they could never go back.
The trimming was initially observed by 15 North Korean soldiers for approximatley 15 minutes before their commanding officer, Senior Lieutenant Pak Chul, ordered the UNC to stop. Cpt. Bonifas ordered that they continue and turned his back on Lt. Pak Chul. Pak sent a runner across the bridge who returned minutes later with 20 more North Korean guards. After refusing to stop trimming and turning his back on Lt. Pak Chul KPA guards picked up axes dropped by the UNC and attacked Cpt. Bonifas, LT. Barrett and the other UNC staff. Cpt. Bonifas was bludgeoned to death by at least five KPA while Lt. Barrett made it to a tree filled depression nearby.
After about 20 – 30 seconds more UNC staff appeared and dispersed the North Korean guards. They placed Cpt. Bonifas on a truck but there was no sign of Lt. Barrett. Some of the UNC force did witness one North Korean guard go into the depression with an axe for a few minutes, then come back, pass the axe to another who did the same. This went on for about 90 minutes. When the UNC realised that Lt. Barrett was missing a search and rescue team was sent to the depression where they found Lt. Barrett had been attacked with an axe. He was sent to a hospital in Seoul via an aid station at Camp Greaves, but died during the journey.
Depicting the Axe Attack
In response the UNC decided that instead of trimming the tree, they would remove it completely in a massive show of strength, but without causing escalation.
Three days after the attack, at 7am, 23 American and South Korean vehicles entered the JSA without warning the North Koreans. Each vehicle had two eight-man teams of military engineers with chainsaws and were accompanied by two 30 man security teams from the Joint Security Force and detonation devices on the bridge were activated. In addition, 64 man South Korean special forces, trained in Tae Kwan Do and armed with clubs accompanied them. When they parked their trucks, they threw out sandbags and passed around M16 assault rifles and M79 grenade launchers and ordered the North Koreans across the bridge to the north.
In addition there was 20 US utility helicopters carrying troops and 7 cobra attack helicopters behind them. They were also supported by a B52 Strattofortress and escorted by F4 Phantom IIs, Korean F-5 and F-86 fighters. Stationed at Taegu Air Base F-111 bombers were ready for deployment along with F-4 Phantoms C and D at Kadena Air Base and Clark Air Base. And just offshore the aircraft carrier Midway task force was stationed. Also, more heavily armed US and South Korean infantry and artillery were positioned near the edges of the DMZ. 12,000 troops were also ordered to Korea, including 1,800 Marines from Okinawa. And to top it all off, during the whole operation there were also nuclear capable strategic bombers that circled the JSA.
The operation was carried out peacefully and took 47 minutes. The stump was left at 20ft tall.
CP#3 was no longer used and concrete bollards were placed in the road to prevent vehicles crossing the bridge of no return.
The site of the poplar tree is now a monument to the two soldiers. In 1987 the stump was removed and replaced with a monument made of stone with brass plate inscribed in their memory.
'On this spot was located the yellow poplar which was the focal point of the ax murders of two United Nations Command officers, Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett, who were attacked and killed by North Korean Guards while supervising a work party trimming the tree'
Villages and Flags
Daeseong (also written Tae Sun Dong) and Kijong-dong are the only two villages allowed in the DMZ. Daeseong is nestled in the southern side of the MDL while Kijong-dong is in the northern side.
The flagpole on the left at Kijong-dong (propaganda village) and the flag on the right at Daesoeng
Residents in Daeseong are free to move in and out of the DMZ but must spend at least 241 nights in the village to keep their residency status. Other regulations mean they have a security unit to protect them (courtesy of the UNC), must be in their houses by nightfall and have all doors and windows secured by midnight.
They are a farming community and enjoy land of up to 17 acres to farm, compared to an average of 1 to 4 acres farmers south of the DMZ have. They are also exempt from national service and from paying taxes. In one harvest they can make up to the equivalent of 80,000USD.
To be a resident of Daeseong you must have lived there before the war or be a direct descendent of someone who did. Women may marry into the community but men cannot due to conscription.
Kijong-dong in the north however, dubbed 'propaganda village' by the south and western forces, seems to have no inhabitants and was set up to try and attract the citizens from Daeseong to defect to the north.
'Up until the late 80's there were loudspeakers playing tapes urging citizens to move to the north. Some windows seem to have been painted on and at night in the taller buildings that do have windows, when the lights were on they were brightest at the top and faded towards the ground floor, suggesting there were no floors in the building'
– Private Ferguson
Both villages fly a flag respective of their country. In the 80s a flagpole was donated to Daeseong by the olympic committee and stands at 100m tall. The norths response was to quickly build a flagpole 160m tall in Kijong-dong.
Messages of hope along part of the fence line
At the entrance to the third tunnel discovered from the North. Symbolising hope for re-unification with the North