DMZ trivia: 11 facts about the line dividing Korea

Living about an hour’s drive from the border between North and South Korea, I finally got to visit yesterday. Along the way, thanks to Google and our tour guide, I learned some trivia. Here’s what stood out to me and what I’ll no doubt continue to tell everyone when they ask about the tour:

  1. The line between North Korea and South Korea is only marked by posts, each spread about 200 meters apart, all along the border.
  2. The area extending two meters to either side of the border is called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Ironically, the DMZ is one of the most heavily militarized zones in the world right now.
  3. The DMZ is covered with a mixture of farms and landmines, wilderness and surveillance cameras. And then exactly two meters from the actual border, both the North and the South maintain barbwire barricades. In other words, there are two tightly patrolled fences, but neither is technically on the border.
  4. The North Koreans erected a flag in the town just outside the borderline. The South Koreans decided to set up there own flag but build it taller than the North Koreans’ flag. In response, though, the North Koreans extending the height of their flagpole. So now there’s one flag on the south side that’s 100 meters high and another on the north side that’s 160 meters high. They’re huge.
  5. Along the one and only road that connects North and South Korea, the South built what looks like white overpasses with massive pillars. But they’re not overpasses. They’re blocks off cement rigged with explosives and remote detonators. If the North tries to invade, the South can blow the structures to delay North Koreans trucks and tanks for a few extra minutes. Of course, the North Koreans probably have a similar set up too. But I don’t know, ’cause I’ve never seen the road on that side.
  6. The South Korean soldiers guarding the border (the ones I’m calling South Koreans) aren’t really South Korean soldiers. Technically, they’re UN soldiers from the South Korean military because the UN controls the whole DMZ on the South Korean side.
  7. On the North Korean side of the border town, Panmunjom, only one soldier stands guard outside the building. When tours, like mine, show up, he breaks out his binoculars to watch. Other North Korean soldiers might be peering out the windows of the building behind him or watching any of footage from the numerous security cameras.
  8. Regulation says tourists can’t wear jeans with holes in them. The reason, according to my tour guide, is that the North Koreans might take pictures of the tourists and use them as propaganda to say that people from democratic societies are poor and can’t afford proper clothes.
  9. A band of North Korean soldiers once tried to sneak through the border into South Korea by traveling down the river where there’s no fence. They planned to assassinate some of the South Korean leaders. South Korean soldiers discovered the would-be assassins, though, and killed all but two of them. One escaped back to North Korea. The other defected to the South, became a baptist minister, and now – we think – lives in California somewhere.
  10. A soviet once tried to cross the border at the JSA, the area with the meeting offices that straddle the line. While on a tour originating on the north side, he broke free from the group and tried to run across the border. North Korean guards, in an attempt to bring him back, ended up crossing the line themselves. South Korean soldiers, seeing the North Koreans crossing the line, open fired. Quite a few North Koreans were killed along with some South Koreans who were shot in response. The soviet tourist, though, made it across the line safely.
  11. There used to be a bunch of checkpoints and observation posts, both North Korean and South Korean, positioned in various spots in Panmunjom. One of the South Korean checkpoints, though, was surrounded by three North Korean ones. To make things worse, a poplar tree obstructed the view from the nearest observation post. As a result, the South Korean side (South Korean and American soldiers from the UN) one day decided to trim the tree so they could keep in visual contact with their checkpoint. They sent a group of workers to do the job along with some soldiers for protection. While trimming, a group of North Korean soldiers showed up. One thing led to another, and the North Koreans ended up attacking the South Koreans. Before help could arrive, two of the American soldiers had been killed, one with an ax, which is why it’s called the Ax Murder Incident and the areas is called Camp Bonifas (Captain Bonifas was one of the Americans who was killed).

Crazy stuff. Overall, the tour fascinated me. Not only did I learn all this, but I got to experience the place in person, which makes the facts and events so much more real and haunting.

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