Despite the end of the Cold War, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially known, remains Communist and one of the only countries that poses a nuclear threat. The North Korean military faces down its arch-enemies from South Korea as well as U.S. troops every day, separated only by an invisible line, the Military Demarcation Line, established as part of the 1953 armistice which ended fighting in the Korean War. The war itself, however, never officially ended.

Origins of the Divided Korea

After the end of World War II, Korea was divided into northern and southern zones, at the 38th Parallel. The Soviet Union controlled the north and refused to cooperate when the United Nations attempted to reunify the country. Left no choice, the U.N. oversaw the founding of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in August of 1948. The Soviets responded by forming the DPRK, led by Kim Il-Sung, a Korean revolutionary and member of the Soviet Communist Party. Over the next several months, both the Soviets and Americans withdrew their troops. On June 25, 1950, Kim’s army rolled across the 38th Parallel, overrunning ill-prepared South Korean troops and conquering the capital, Seoul, in a just a few days.

End of Fighting and Creation of the Demarcation Line

The United States and 16 other countries sent troops to defend the South. Fighting went on for three years. Each Korean side lost more than a million people, civilians and soldiers. More than 36,000 Americans lost their lives. The result of this massive bloodshed: on July 27, 1953, the two sides signed an armistice agreement that established a line about 155 miles long, from the intersection of the Imjin and Han rivers in the west, east to the Sea of Japan. The Military Demarcation Line is not recognized as an international border. Instead, it is a cease-fire line. A zone of about 1.25 miles on either side constitutes the Demilitarized Zone. At the heart of the DMZ is Panmunjon Village, the Joint Security Area, where soldiers from both sides face each other a few feet apart across the Demarcation Line.

Confrontations Across the Line

Though the 1953 cease fire ended fighting, there were dozens of confrontations across the Military Demarcation Line since, including some resulting in fatalities. The most violent year was 1968 when 181 incidents killed 17 U.S. soldiers and 145 South Koreans. In June of 1974, North Korea sank a South Korean police vessel at the extended Demarcation Line in the Sea of Japan. Also that year, North Korean guards assaulted U.S. Major W.D. Henderson, beating him severely. He survived, but in the most notorious confrontation, in 1976, North Korean soldiers killed Capt. Arthur Bonifas and First Lt. Mark Barrett with axes.

Crossing The Line From Below

In the strange history of the Korean DMZ, one of the more bizarre developments was the discovery of tunnels, allowing North Koreans to cross the Military Demarcation line from underground. The first tunnel was uncovered in 1974, extending more than a half-mile south of the Demarcation line. The South Koreans found another, wider tunnel a year later, capable of letting 30,000 troops walk through in rows of four. The largest tunnel turned up in 1978, after South Korean troops heard a series of underground blasts. This tunnel ran more than a mile, 246 feet below the surface, and was apparently designed for a sneak attack on Seoul. It took 12 more years to locate a fourth tunnel. Because they cross the Military Demarcation Line, albeit from underground, the U.S. and South Korea consider them violations of the 1953 armistice. But the North rather implausibly denies digging the tunnels.