The border between North and South Korea is the most heavily fortified border in the world. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that stretches about two kilometers on each side of the border is located primarily above the 38th parallel (38 degrees latitude). Running over mostly mountainous land, it is approximately 254 kilometers (158 miles) long and four kilometers (2½ miles wide.) The border itself between South Korea and North Korea — which is disputed and exactly in the middle of the DMZ — is called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). A Civilian Control Zone (CCZ), which unescorted civilians can not enter, extends for five to 20 kilometers (three to 12 miles south) of the South Korean DMZ line. [Source: Tom O’Neill, National Geographic, July 2003]

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Established by the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the fighting in the Korean War, the DMZ is a strip of land across the Korean peninsula that separates the forces of South Korea and the United Nations Command in the South, and North Korean forces in the North. The DMZ is 158 miles long and 2.48 miles wide, with a lineThough there are considerable fortifications in and around the DMZ, it has been largely undisturbed since the Korean War and has developed into something of a wildlife refuge, especially for migratory birds. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Rivers, marshes, hills, bays, islands and open sea divides South Korea and North Korea. The North Korean army has 700,000 troops stationed withing 60 kilometers of the border, armed with 13,000 pieces or artillery capable of firing up to 500,000 rounds an hour. In 1999 and 2000 alone, 500 news pieces or artillery were added capable of hitting targets further away. To the south are 550,000 South Korean soldiers and 28,500 American troops. The U.S. Army’s Second Division is the most forward positioned U.S. division in the world. In the early 2000s, it was spread out over 25 camps to prevent it from being overrun quickly. Unlike other U.S. military installations, tanks and artillery are loaded with ammunition at all times, allowing them to counter-attack in seconds. The number of soldiers allowed off base is tightly controlled. [Source: Newsweek]

The Northern Limit is extension of the Military Demarcation Line that extends into the Yellow Sea. It was originally not recognized by North Korea but has been recognized by the North Koreans since 1999 after a naval clash between North and South Korea occurred there. . A number of clashes have occurred here, most of them involving North Korean spy vessels.

DMZ and Security

The DMZ was set up as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. Large troop concentrations and heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery are not allowed to enter it. Anyone who tries to cross the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that marks the border is likely to be shot. Just to reach the DMZ one has to pass through several heavily guarded checkpoints.

The DMZ was described by U.S. President Bill Clinton as the “most dangerous place on earth.” It arguably has the world’s highest concentrations of firepower and troops. Downtown Seoul is only 47 kilometers (29 miles) from the DMZ, and some of its suburbs are considerably closer than that. Parts of the region are growing fast. The Gimpo (Kimpo) Peninsula which is about 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the DMZ, had 6,000 residents in 1992 but more than 250,000 in 2005.

▪Maj. Gen. Russel Honore told Newsweek: “The best instrument of peace is to be able to fight tonight.’” As for the North Koreans he said: “They talk peace but their words don’t match what they are doing on the ground.” Political analyst Robert Manning wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the armed North Korea soldiers in the DMZ were "more theater than military threat."

The DMZ has been more of a wall than the Berlin Wall ever was. Exchanges between North Koreans and South Koreans were shut down to a much higher degree than they were between East and Waste Germany.

While the military presense near the DMZ is formidable, the region close to the DMZ is surprisingly developed. Fields are filled with greenhouses and crops, A few factories have sprung up. Land is in short supply in South Korea.

North Korean Deployment Along the DMZ

North Korea remains in high state of readiness. Nearly two thirds of its army is deployed within a 163 kilometers (100 miles) of the DMZ and the South Korean border. One Pentagon official told U.S. News and World Report, "technically all they have to do is crank up and turn left.' North Korea has SCUD missiles and three airfields with 100 combat planes deployed near the DMZ. An estimated 13,000 heavy artillery pieces are positioned there, many in mountain bunkers. They are set on rails so they can quickly be slide in and out of the bunkers.

Some of artillery batteries are hidden; some are ensconced concrete in fortified bunkers; others out in the open. Artillery shells and ammunition are stored in a sophisticated network of tunnels. Although much of the weaponry and ammunition is old, it can still deliver a lethal barrage. “Without moving a single soldier in its million-man army,” former CIA analyst Bruce Klingner, now at the Heritage Foundation, told Newsweek, “the North could launch a devastating attack on Seoul.”[Source: Bill Powell, Newsweek, April 25, 2017]

Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post: “ North Korea has “a tremendous amount of artillery” right opposite Seoul, said Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a senior imagery analyst at 38 North, a website focused on North Korea. The Second Corps of the Korean People’s Army stationed at Kaesong on the northern side of the DMZ has about 500 artillery pieces, Bermudez said. And this is just one army corps; similar corps are on either side of it. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post April 21, 2017

“All the artillery pieces in the Second Corps can reach the northern outskirts of Seoul, just 30 miles from the DMZ, but the largest projectiles could fly to the south of the capital. About 25 million people — or half of the South Korean population — live in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. “It’s the tyranny of proximity,” said David Maxwell, who served in South Korea during his 30 years in the Army and now teaches at Georgetown University. “It’s like the distance between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Imagine a million-man army just outside the Beltway with artillery they could use to terrorize Washington.”

About half of North Korea’s artillery pieces are multiple rocket launchers, including 18 to 36 of the huge 300mm launchers that Pyongyang has bragged about. State media last year published photos of the system during a test firing that Kim attended. The 300mm guns could probably fire eight rounds every 15 minutes, Bermudez said, and have a range of about 44 miles. “This could do a lot of damage,” he said. “If they hit a high-rise building with a couple of rounds of artillery, people get into their cars, causing huge traffic jams, so North Korea could target highways and bridges in cascades.”

“If North Korea were to start unleashing its artillery on the South, it would be able to fire about 4,000 rounds an hour, Roger Cavazos of the Nautilus Institute estimated in a 2012 study. There would be 2,811 fatalities in the initial volley and 64,000 people could be killed that first day, the majority of them in the first three hours, he wrote. Some of the victims would be American, because the U.S. military has about 28,000 troops in South Korea. The higher estimates for the 300mm rocket launcher’s range — up to 65 miles — would put the U.S. Air Force base at Osan and the new military garrison at Pyeongtaek, the replacement for the huge base in Seoul, within reach.

Defenses at the DMZ

South Korean defenses in the DMZ area include mine fields, razor wire and tank traps. Rivers are filled with metal hooks to deter infiltrators. Huge explosive charges designed to stop a North Korean advance are buried along the roads heading south from the DMZ. On the North Korea side are three-story-high loudspeakers blast out North Korean propaganda and concrete bunkers for its artillery and troops..

Each side has their own set of barriers. A chain-link fence that extends along the southern South Korean side of the DMZ is three meters (ten feet) high and topped with “Y-shaped” extensions with rolls of razor and barbed wire. Inside the fence there are lots of mines. On the outside are rock-hard embankments intended to stop advancing tanks. Watch towers are spaced about 100 meters apart except in places where the terrain is steep and rocky enough to act as a natural barrier.

Within the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ) — which extends for five to 20 kilometers (three to 12 miles south) to the south of South Korean DMZ line — are entire towns inhabited by soldiers. Tanks rumble along town streets; soldiers march along country roads followed by Humvees with mounted machine guns. Along the Munsan and Cheorwaon invasion corridors — which have been used for centuries by invaders — there are large concentrations of troops, weapons caches and armor. On a U.S. controlled base just south of the DMZ there is 100-yard one-hole golf course with real bunkers on one side and a barbed wire fence on the other.

Tunnels Under the DMZ

It is believed that the North Koreans have drilled more than 20 invasion tunnels below the DMZ. "At the tunnels's south ends, the last 10 yards of rock would be removed by hand and pickax and rolled down an incline to storage rooms." So far four tunnels have been discovered (the last in 1990) and some are large enough to permit a regiment (2,400 men) to infiltrate into the South every hour. [Source: U.S. News and World Report]

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The discovery between 1974 and 1990 of at least four major tunnel systems running from North Korea across the demilitarized zone and into the South rattled South Korean nerves. Some were discovered after patrolling soldiers noticed smoke, heard voices and felt explosions underground, others after intelligence was gleaned from defectors. Experts estimated that the cross-border shafts, some with rail lines, platforms for heavy equipment and communication cables buried hundreds of feet below ground, would allow 30,000 North Korean troops to infiltrate in an hour. "It was eerie," said David M. Finkelstein, director of Project Asia and a North Korea specialist. "I was absolutely amazed at how wide and high the tunnel I visited was." There haven't been any major discoveries in recent years, leading some to conclude the North has focused its tunnel-building exclusively inward. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2006]

Finding the tunnels is like locating a needle in a haystack a geological engineer told U.S. News and World Report. "The rock is very hard granite, bland stuff for geophysical sensors. the average tunnel is 2 meters or so in diameter — a very small target at 100 meters deep. U.S. spy agencies have reportedly hired psychics to search for North Korean tunnels under the DMZ.

In the 1970s, three tunnels dug by the North Korean under the DMZ were discovered. The second one was discovered in 1975 by a South Korean soldier at the DMZ who heard dynamite blasts in the ground beneath him. The tunnel is 3,500 meters in length and is an average of two meters high and 2.5 meters wide. With openings about 1,100 meters south of the MDL (Military Demarcation Line between the two Koreas), the tunnels reportedly could funnel 30,000 troops and several jeeps in a few hours. When the tunnel was discovered eight soldiers were killed in a fire fight.

Troops Along the DMZ

In the early 2000s, North Korean troops in the DMZ area outnumbered American troops there 50 to 1 (700,000 as opposed to 14,000). In North Korea, 750,000 troops, about 70 percent of North Korea’s total active force, are forward deployed within 100 kilometers (63 miles) of the DMZ. By contrast about 450,000 South Korean troops and 20,000 American troops are deployed within 100 kilometers of the DMZ.

While the soldiers guarding the DMZ carry only handguns and rifles, they are backed by huge amount of firepower, including thousands of pieces or artillery and tanks just beyond the limits of the DMZ..

U.S. forces at the DMZ are on full alert, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Many soldiers near the front sleep with their boots on. One soldier told National Geographic, “We fight on the ground we train on. And it doesn’t take two days to get ready. We’ll fight tonight.” After protests in the early 2000s over two South Korean schoolgirls killed by a U.S. army armored vehicle, U.S. soldiers were repositioned away from the DMZ and the responsibility for their missions was transferred to South Korean ones.

South Korean soldiers regularly patrol the DMZ. Patrols on both sides increase during periods of tension between North and South Korea. Occasionally North Korea will send heavily armed troops into the DMZ. In May, 2002, they crept into South Korean territory and stole a chair. On several occasions North and South Korean patrols have stumbled across one another and confronted each other with their weapons ready to fire but in the end backed down, in some cases exchanging cigarettes before they withdrew.

Propaganda at the DMZ

At the DMZ, South Koreans have illuminated patriotic slogans visible to the North Koreans, erected a huge Christmas tree during he holiday season and flashed the 2002 World Cup emblem in the sky. Near Panmunjom on the South Korean side of the border there are huge signs with "Freedom" and "Democracy" written in Korean letters.

The North Koreans have set up huge loudspeakers that play martial music and broadcast recorded propaganda message such as: “This is paradise. Come over so you can have a good meal of rice.” Large signboards near Panmunjom read “Yankee Go Home,” “Come Over to Our Country!”, "Against America", "Prosperity of the People," “We Have Over 10 Million Cars!” and “This Victory is for Our 21st Century in sunshine Gen. Kim Jong Il Hurray” in Hangul.

Associated Press reported: “For decades, the rival Koreas have fought an ideological war, using leaflets, loudspeakers and radio broadcasts across the border. At the height of the propaganda, South Korea's military speakers blared messages near the border 20 hours a day, officials say. South Korea halted the campaign in 2003 — including the longtime practice of lighting the huge Christmas tree — as ties between North and South warmed under an era of reconciliation. [Source: Lee Jin-Man, Associated Press, December Dec. 21, 2010]

On the North Korean side you can see huge pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, Kijong (“Propaganda Village”), North Korea’s only DMZ village. It is a “town” made up of movie-set facades with painted on windows. Intended to give the impression that North Korea is a prosperous place. It was built in the 1950s to lure defectors to cross over to North Korea. Kijong is home to the world's tallest flagpole. It is 160 meters (525 feet) high and carries a flag that is 30 meters (98½ feet long) and weighs 272 kilograms (600 pounds) and, according to some American soldiers, takes 50 men to raise. Soldier of Fortune magazine reportedly offered thousands of dollars to anyone that could bring them a piece of the flag.

Reunification Highway is a six-lane freeway in North Korea with military checkpoints that runs southward from Pyongyang to the DMZ. The road is supposed to connect Pyongyang with Seoul. Right before the last exist to Panmunjon near the DMZ there is a sign that reads "Seoul 70 km." One journalist who traveled from Pyongyang to Kaesong, a city near the DMZ, in 1997 said he counted only 10 vehicles on the 100-kilometer 60-mile stretch of highway and seven of them were broken down on the side of the highway.

Giant Christmas Tree at the DMZ: Propaganda?

In 2010, as troops stood guard and a choir sang carols, South Koreans lit a massive steel Christmas tree near Aegibong on a spot that overlooks the DMZ and is within sight of atheist North Korea. The tree had 100,000 lights, likely making it visible as far away as Kaesong, one of the North’s most populated border cities. Lee Jin-Man of Associated Press wrote: The lighting of the tree is a tradition condemned in Pyongyang as propaganda. The provocative ceremony — which needed government permission — was also a sign that” South Korea was “serious about countering the North's aggression. [Source: Lee Jin-Man, Associated Press, December Dec. 21, 2010]

“On Aegibong Peak, about a mile from the border that divides the Korean peninsula, marines toting rifles circled the Christmas tree as more than 100,000 twinkling lights blinked on. The brightly lit tree — with a cross on top — stood in stark relief to North Korea, where electricity is limited. Choir members dressed in white robes trimmed in blue and wearing red scarves and Santa Claus hats gathered beneath the steel structure draped with multicolored lights, illuminated stars and snowflakes. An audience of about 200 listened as they sang "Joy to the World" and other Christmas carols. "I hope that Christ's love and peace will spread to the North Korean people," said Lee Young-hoon, a pastor of the Seoul church that organized the lighting ceremony. About 30 percent of South Koreans are Christian.

“The 100-foot-tall (30-meter-tall) steel tree sits on a peak high enough for North Koreans living in border towns to see it and well within reach of their nation's artillery.“As a precaution, dozens of armed troops took up position around the site during the lighting ceremony. Ambulances and fire trucks were parked nearby. Instructions placed on chairs at the ceremony advised participants to take cover in case of an attack from North Korea. "The danger of the enemy's threat still exists," the leaflet read, suggesting that they hide behind concrete walls, crouch down between chairs and move quickly to shelters in case of an attack. The event took place uninterrupted.

The lighting of a Christmas tree tower near the DMZ was an annual event for years until 2004, when the practice was suspended as part of an agreement between the two Koreas not to spread propaganda near the border. In 2011, the South Korean government approved plans for three such displays near the DMZ. A North Korean state-run Web site called those planned displays a form of “psychological warfare” and warned there would be “unexpected consequences” if the coalition of South Christian groups went ahead with the tree lightings. The displays were ultimately canceled in consideration of North Korea’s official period of mourning in the wake of the death of Kim Jong Il last December. The tree lighting was resumed in 2012 and but canceled in 2013 due to a military alert. In 2014, a 20-meter-high (60 foot) "Christmas" tower — with a giant illuminated cross — was pulled down after North and South Korea agreed to resume high-level talks. [Source: Jon Rabiroff and Yoo Kyong Chang, Stars and Stripes, December 21, 2012; AFP, AP, December 22, 2014]


Panmunjom (north of Seoul inside the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea) is where negotiations between North and South Korea were held during the Korean War and where the armistice ending hostilities but not the was signed on July 27, 1953. The agreement was not a peace treaty: a four-kilometer-wide de-militarized zone (DMZ) was placed between the two armies, and South Korea and North Korea are still technically at war to this day.

Panmunjom was set up as a neutral meeting place for North and South Korea. Meetings, which often consist of one side accusing the other of something, have continued here off and on since the last months of the Korean War. In the early 2000s, U-2 spy planes photographed the area everyday. Surveillance equipment monitors radio and phone communications.

Goose-stepping North Korean soldiers look ahead with icy stares. Panmunjom is the one place where they have regular eye contact with their enemies. South Korean soldiers are required to have a black belt in tae kwon do. They strike a marital arts pose and wear sunglasses to look intimidating. Sometimes when South Korean soldiers are new to to the job they sometimes grab each other in case a North Korean tries to pull one of them to the North Korea side (it reportedly has happened). American soldiers reportedly have to be six feet or taller.

The United Nations Military Armistice Commission is in charge of monitoring the negotiations. United Nations guards strike a martial arts pose as they stare from the South Korean side into North Korea. Nearby are 600 South Korean and American troops at Camp Bonifas, which are in charge of protecting foreign visitors to Panmunjom.

Visitors usually get a chance to visit the one-story blue building at the "truce village" where the negotiations and signing ceremony were held in 1953 and negotiations are held today. Half of main building and the negotiating table at Panmunjom sits in North Korea, and the other half sits in South Korea. A ribbon used to run down the middle of the table defining the border and windows located near the end of the table allowed journalists from both sides to observe what was going on. Schoolchildren are told that each side likes to push their little flag a few inches across the line on the conference table

Shoving matches and fist fights have broke out between North Korean soldiers and South Korean journalists. Once North Koreans sawed a few inches of the chairs used by South Koreans so they would look small. On another occasion North Koreans came with AK-47s hidden under their jackets. Rather than confront them the American turned up the heat to make the gun carrying adversaries, in their heavy coats feel uncomfortable as possible.

Defenses Around Panmunjom

Panmunjom Tour buses travel on "Freedom Road," which is 12 lanes wide in some places and lined with machine gun nests, artillery emplacements and a display of Korean-War vintage planes and tanks. Along the Imjin River is a two-and-half-meter-high razor wire fence dotted with hundreds of observation posts. The river is filled with nets and spikes to deter infiltrators.

Stops include the famous bridge of No Return, a tunnel dug through granite under the DMZ by the North Koreans, and Freedom House, where tourists get a view of the razor wire fences, concrete bunkers of the no mans land between the two countries. A few kilometers short of Truce Villages, buses stop at a one-lane bridge and are thoroughly searched by soldiers. Camp Bonifas is the home of the world's most dangerous one-hole golf course, where stray balls have set off mines, and souvenir shop and canteen that sells DMZ caps and M&Ms. The buses are escorted from the camp by armed guards.

On the South Korean side of the border there are tank drops and ingenuous tunnels with explosive charges that can drop concrete blocks to obstruct major roads in the event of an invasion from the north. The countryside around the DMZ on the North Korean side seems quite pleasant. Its hard to believe it is laced with tunnels hiding tanks, artillery and maybe even chemical and biological weapons.

Visitors will be able to peer through a telescope at the "Wall," a 250-kilometer (150-mile) -long concrete barrier built by the U.S. and South Korea as an antitank measure. The wall wasn't shown to tourist until after the Berlin Wall came down in 1990 and the Communists wanted a Korean Wall to symbolize their "burning desire for reunification." Visitors don't normally get a chance to see the 3,300-volt electric fence that seems better suited for keeping North Koreans in that enemy soldiers out. The Peace Museum on the DMZ displays the axes used to kill two of American soldiers in August, 1976

Freedom Village in the DMZ

The only people living in the DMZ in the early 2000s other than military personnel were 225 residents of Taesongdong, a small farming community sometimes referred to as "Freedom Village." All the residents either lived there before the Korean War or were descendants of people who lived there at that time. All were farmers and one of the main reasons they stayed was that the government helped them earn an average tax-free income of $52,000, twice that of ordinary South Korean farmers, largely because their farms are larger than one elsewhere in South Korea and their produce fetches high prices.

The residents of Taesongdong work their rice field with armed guards nearby, endure loud propaganda broadcasts and have to respect a 11:00pm curfew. Land mines surround their farms. One women was skilled in 1993 when she tried to take a shortcut and stepped on a mine. In 1998, two residents — a mother and her son — were captured by North Korea soldiers when they accidently stepped over the North Korean border while collecting pine cones and acorns to make into jelly. They were kept in a small room and let go after three days of frantic negotiations.

Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: In a rare moment of agreement, though, the South and North decided in 1955 to build model villages to extol each side's superior way of life. And so was born Taesung Village, also called Freedom Village, on the southern half of the DMZ here, facing the North's own model village, called Kijong. Each side poured money into its showcase village. The arguments were hardly subtle and indeed sometimes boiled down to the level of whose flagpole is bigger. In the 1980's, shortly after the Southerners erected a 328-foot flagpole, a 525-foot flagpole went up on the other side. [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, August 3, 2004]

“With nothing but an invisible line separating the two villages, cold war confrontation was often eyeball to eyeball. At the height of the cold war, North Korean soldiers would slip over to this side to ambush American soldiers. Villagers here unwittingly stepping over into the North would find themselves arrested by North Korean soldiers. In a recent instance of psychological warfare, or just annoying behavior, North Korean soldiers crossed several feet into the Southern side and sat down on chairs while the Southerners were busy harvesting crops.

People Living in the DMZ

Norimitsu Onishi wrote in the New York Times: “Here in the only inhabited corner of the demilitarized zone. at least one young descendant of the first inhabitants of this most peculiar of villages was blissfully unaware of its twisted origins. ''I've heard about the DMZ, but I don't know what it is,'' said Kim So Young, 10, a fifth grader at the Taesung Elementary School, which has 14 staff members, 14 students, classrooms equipped with giant television sets and more computers than the pupils can use. ''There must be other villages like ours, right?'' [Source: Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, August 3, 2004]

“Taesung's 226 residents living inside 52 houses carry special ID's and, when leaving and entering, must endure countless checkpoints. They must return to the village by nightfall and be inside their houses by 11 p.m. With mosquitoes breeding in the wilderness of the DMZ, malaria survives here. One resident was killed after stepping on a land mine; another lost a foot. ''People outside think this must be a frustrating, closed place,'' said Kim Dong Hyun, 49, the mayor. ''But it doesn't feel that way to us. It's our home. My parents lived here before the war.''

“Indeed, most residents trace their prewar roots to this area. In keeping with Korean customs, male residents are allowed to bring wives to live here, but female residents marrying outsiders must leave. The population has declined slightly, from about 250 two decades ago. In return for the restrictions, residents are granted special privileges, including exemption from paying provincial taxes and serving in the military. The inhabitants, almost all of whom are farmers, have been allotted large patches of land, so that the annual household income here is among the nation's highest. “But it is at the school that the South's lavish propaganda spending is manifest. According to the principal, Gil Hae Sung, it receives a special budget that allows it to buy equipment and facilities found in no other school. Maybe because of the school's facilities, or because they had grown up here and knew no other place, the children saw nothing strange in living inside the DMZ. None of the four fifth and sixth graders could remember being warned to evacuate, as their parents routinely were. None in fact could recall any warnings at all. ''My father told me not to go to a certain area,'' So Young finally said, ''because my grandmother was abducted by North Koreans when she was picking acorns.''

Land Mines and Villagers Near the DMZ

Land mines have taken a toll on Haean, a farm community of 1,400 people south of the DMZ. Since 1953, dozens of Haean residents have been killed or maimed when they stepped on mines. The victims include a farmer killed this year and another who lost part of his leg in October while searching the mountainside for medicinal plants. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2009]

Reporting from Haean, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “As she rubs the stump where her left ankle used to be, Park Choon-young recalls her life in this town that she calls a cursed place, a no man's land where the very ground is fraught with peril. Countless land mines planted here, she says, have wreaked an incredible personal toll: The petite 84-year-old widow lost two sons and a grandson to explosions after they accidentally detonated mines while walking in the dense woods outside town. About four decades ago, Park also stepped on a mine in a farm field. Now she limps about on a recently fitted prosthesis that cuts into her swollen flesh, raising raw and bloody welts. "I'm old now, my withered leg is getting skinnier," she said, wiping away tears as she huddled beneath a blanket on the floor of her one-room hovel. "It's getting so cold. My leg hurts when it's cold."

“Just half a mile south of the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, this isolated farming community of 1,400 residents has become a realm of the walking wounded. Perhaps tens of thousands of land mines — menacing reminders of the Korean War half a century ago — still litter the picturesque valley of birch treesand terraced fields, which is known as "the punch bowl" for its sloping, concave shape. The area was the scene of some of the most savage hand-to-hand fighting of the 1950-53 war, including the battles of Bloody Ridge and Heartbreak Ridge, as both sides fought for the towering vantage point of the surrounding Kumgang mountains. For many residents, the violence has not ended.

As part of postwar rebuilding efforts, the government offered cheap land to attract settlers to battle-ravaged areas such as Haean, activists say. Park Choon-young moved to Haean 50 years ago, when her husband died and left her with five children. Land was cheap here. Back then, villagers used metal detectors to carefully scour for mines on their farms. They disabled the devices and sold the parts. They were so successful that the military asked many to conduct mine searches rather than use the more inexperienced soldiers.

“The region is divided into three areas, Park and others say: the hazardous zone, where mines are known to be present; a probable zone; and a so-called safe zone. But the lines often blur. Summer rains wash mines from the mountain's northern slope. "They settle on farms, in stream beds, along the roadside," Park said. "No place is safe." Poverty forces villagers to wander into the mountains — even to cordoned-off areas — in search of food and firewood, Park said. They know the dangers, but after some time passes without an accident, they start to trust the land again. Slowly, they get braver. Then another explosion will occur. Or someone will find a deer carcass with its legs blown off. Once, a town official picked up a mine in a field. It exploded in his hand and gouged out an eye.

Victims of Land Mines in South Korea in a Small Farming Community

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “one by one, the accidents happened. It was like Russian roulette: Who would be hit next? Park's turn came in 1967. She was picking vegetables on her small farm when she spotted some greens growing near a drain. She reached down and a mine exploded, taking her left foot. After she recuperated, she continued to work the farm using crutches. What choice did she have? But she never felt safe again. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2009]

In October, Kim Eun-man lost his leg in an area that he said had been proclaimed safe. Military officials offered no compensation and instead marked off the field with warning signs, Kim said. At the Haean senior center, Kim Ok-ja pulled herself across the floor like an infant. A land mine had shattered her left hip. She would like to leave the area but is too poor to move. "If only I'd known what awaited me," said Kim, 74, "I would never have moved here." Paek Choon-ok, 72, nodded in agreement. She walks with a cane now, having lost her right leg 12 years ago while picking vegetables on the mountain.

Years earlier, her 8-year-old son was killed searching for scrap metal in the forest. No one has offered her financial help. "There is an unspoken message that you have to suffer this on your own," she said. "They say, 'No one forced you to go to that forest.' And so I tell myself, 'Be quiet and suffer. No one wants to hear your story.' "

Haean administrator Jeong Chung-seob acknowledges that few people have looked kindly on land mine victims here. "Many feel they should be punished for entering restricted areas," he said. "But that stand is softening." Not quickly enough for Park Choon-young. Three years before her oldest son and a grandson were killed in 2001 while hunting rabbits, another son was maimed by a mine. After 10 years, he succumbed to his injuries. Park says she misses her boys, all three of them, as well as her foot. She rues her decision to move to Haean. Her face is wrinkled, puffy from crying. "I'm all alone now," she said. "I have nothing."

Wildlife the DMZ

Oddly enough the DMZ has become a kind of unofficial wildlife sanctuary, where rare birds such as Manchurian cranes congregate. wetlands, rice paddies, prairies, hills, forests and mountains

Environmental groups hope that one day the DMZ will became a preserve. There are signs in English and Korean on young pine saplings that read, "Let's Love trees." The DMZ has become a haven for 140 wild animals found almost nowhere else on the Korean peninsula, including snow geese, Siberian herons and two rare species of crane the endangered Manchurian crane and the rare red-crowned crane as well the black-faced spoonbill. About 350 red-crowned cranes winter in the DMZ. They arrive from Siberia and northeast China and feed in the rice fields on the Cheorwon Plain. Numerous ducks and geese use it as flyover when they migrate.

Eurasian lynx and goral antelopes live there. There is even some evidence — large cat-like prints, remains of mauled pigs, tree trunks shredded by claws — that a tiger might be in the area. A former television camera crew and a man named Lim Sun Nam have searched the region for the first evidence of the tigers. From time to time explosions are heard in the distance along the DMZ. They are often mines that have been set off by an unfortunate mule deer.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: The DMZ “is a favored winter residence for much of the world's population of rare red-crown and white-naped cranes. They are joined by kestrels, geese and black vultures as well as mammals such as Chinese roe deer, wild pigs and an occasional black bear. Some surveys suggest the presence of endangered Siberian tigers or Amur leopards, although the evidence is about as credible as a sighting of the Loch Ness monster. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, March 09, 2004]

“No doubt the star attraction is the red-crown crane, whose image adorns countless sake bottles, kimonos, Chinese screens and other forms of Oriental art. The bird is celebrated as a symbol of fidelity, but it is as rare as the virtue it embodies -- the worldwide population having dwindled to an estimated 2,000. About 15 percent of them live near Chorwon between October and February.The cranes spend their days in the rice paddies, brown and desolate in late winter. They bob on their long, spindly legs between the dried stalks of rice, feasting on the remains of the harvest. But when the sun drops low, the birds fly over the numerous fortifications and retreat for the night into the marshy underbrush inside the DMZ. "It is a perfect bedroom for cranes, safe and warm, with no people to bother them," said Yoon Moo Boo, a professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul who is one of South Korea's foremost experts on cranes. "Almost everywhere else on the peninsula, the wetlands have been drained."

“In South Korea, the birds' habitat has disappeared under gargantuan concrete blocks of apartments and factories. In the North, much of what the land could provide has been eaten or burned for fuel by a desperate populace. "On one side you have extensive urbanization, and on the other a population so starved that they have ravaged the countryside looking for things to eat," said Caroll Muffett, director of international programs for Defenders of Wildlife, based in Washington.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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