The 38th parallel north – border between the North and the South

  Geopolitique, Histoire

Is there still a use to the 38th parallel north (border) or has it became a simple \’tourist attraction\’ ?

Origins :

1945, August : demarcation between the North (sovietics) and the South (Americans)
1948, September 9th : Republic of North Korea
1950, June 25th : The North attack the South, the United States support the South
1950, June 28th : Seoul is invaded by the North
1950, August 10th : The American Army go on the offensive
1950, September 15th : The Americans arrived at Inchon
1950, October 1st : The South pass though the border
1950, December 4th : The Americans withdraw from the North due to an intervention of the Chineses
1951, March 31st : The Americans reach the 38th parallel north
1951, July : peace negotiations, stoped 1 month later
1953, July 23th : agreement on ceasefire (38th parallel north accepted) , no peace treaty

The 38th parallel north in Korea was originally used as a landmark for the US to negotiate with the Soviets at the end of the Second World War (in 1945), when the Japanese no longer occupied Korea.
They were discussing how to \”share\” the Korean peninsula, and decided to take the 38th parallel north as a landmark to cut the korea in two. In the North, the Soviets, in the South, the Americans.

In 1948, the separation of Korea into two camps created first tensions. With the creation of the Democratic People\’s Republic of Korea in the North and the Republic of Korea in the South, the 38th Parallel has become a real frontier separating two countries.

The reason why the 38th north parallel has become a real frontier militarily watched by the North as the South is of political origin. Indeed, the North did not accept that elections run by the United Nations Commission be conducted in the South. There, the Americans argued that Korea\’s only event was theirs.
This created tensions between the two Koreas, each of them wanting to conceal the other.

In June 1950, North Korea attacked the South for the first time, with the help of the Soviets. Seoul is then invaded. In the South, the Americans take the offensive and in October 1950, they cross the border to repel the North Koreans. Unfortunately, the Chinese take the side of North Korea and help to invade, once again, the South. The South is then reduced to the city of Busan, Daegu and Masan (South).

In March 1951, the South succeeded in pushing the North to the 38th parallel north. And finally, in July 1951, the North and the South agree on the opening of talks, which will not last long (1 month). On July 23, 1953, a ceasefire agreement was accepted by both sides, but no peace treaty would be signed. At that time, the \”border\” between the Democratic People\’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea was really created.

The 38th parallel north in Korea has been used as a border between the North and the South since the war of Korea. Throughout this line of separation, many clashes and incidents occurred. A \”Demilitarized Korean Zone\” (DMZ) was created on July 27, 1953, when the armistice of Panmunjom was signed. It is 248 km long and extends for about 4 km. This area is guarded, both North and South, by many soldiers, in case of attacks. Nobody has the right to move beyond the borders, which extends for several kilometers on both sides of the two korea. More recently, we have seen rail convoys from both sides. For about sixty years, it was the first \’opening\’ between the two korea. This area is particularly visited by tourists.

The only crossing point of this border is the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is controlled by the UN. There, the two korea are within a few meters of each other by the MDL (military demarcation line). The mark is not the same from the moment North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. The JSA, or also called Panmunjom (village situated near), is the only point where the South and the North face each other.
The JSA and the DMZ were constructed to «prevent the occurrence of incidents which might lead to a resumption of hostilities. »1

Développement :

JSA : Joint Security Area, Panmunjom

The JSA or Panmunjom, takes its name from the ancient village located about 800 meters away. This ancient village was destroyed during the Korean War, creating the debate on the name of \’Panmunjom\’ to designate the JSA. It served as a place of repatriation of prisoners of war in 1953, being the only point of access between the north and the south. Panmunjom is the only place where the two kings face each other, so it is also a very secure place, in the North by the North Korean army and in the South by, for the most part, the American army, but also some KATUSA, representing the Army of the Republic of Korea. The term KATUSA (Korean Augmentation To The United States Army) was created in 1950, during the Korean War, to increase the number of soldiers on the South side. This term is still used today, since it designates a branch of the South Korean Army.
After the cease-fire, and the signing of the armistice on July 27, 1953, the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) was established and the soldiers to the south as to the north, could move freely throughout the area (JSA).
In 1976, after the incident that killed two American soldiers, the border was strengthened, and the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) was relocated to the middle of the JSA, separating the north and the south. The North Korean buildings in the other side of the MDL were destroyed, and the Panmungak Pavilion in the north, occupied by North Korean soldiers.

Despite the fact that the JSA is very secure in both North and South, and that the soldiers are ready to intervene at any time, many incidents and more or less violent events have occurred within the walls itself.

On August 29, 1967, North Korean soldiers (KPA) shot Bonifas camp, killing one American soldier, two Korean soldiers, and wounding dozens of others.

On April 14, 1968, a truck carrying food and supplies at the observation post named Oullette was stopped by KPAs who wanted to kill the UN soldiers. After killing four out of six, they fled to the other side of the MDL.

One of the most recent incident is the « poplar tree incident or axe murder incident » on August 18, 1976, about 50 meters from the « bridge of no return », members of the UNC (two captains and eleven soldiers) escorted by five members of the KPA leave together to cut the poplar blocking the view of one of the UNC observations. Hardly the soldiers of the south began to cut the tree, that a fifteen soldier KPA arrived on the spot. UNC soldiers were unarmed. The KPAs asked them to stop cutting the tree, but one of the captains of the UNC asked his soldiers to continue, since they had received a delegation from the North, authorizing him to do so. A KPA truck with about twenty soldiers armed with deer arrived in turn, and began to hit the UNC soldiers and the two captains. Captain Bonifas was beaten to death by more than five KPA soldiers. After a few seconds, the UNC army arrived on the scene, dispersing the North Koreans. They recovered the body of Captain Bonifas. The other captain, Barrett, had tried to hide himself in a fake, but having been hit with many axes, he died in his turn a few minutes later.

In 1984, we could feel that the tension was still present. Indeed, a Soviet tourist who came to visit the JSA passed the MDL shouting that he wanted to \’flee\’ the country. The North Korean soldiers did not hesitate to pull out their arms and fire. Preventing him from moving to South Korea. The South Korean soldiers, alerted, also began firing on the North Korean soldiers. There were four dead; one South Korean and three North Korean. This incident shows us that strong tensions were still palpable about thirty years ago.
In 1998, South Korea decided to build the \’House of Peace\’ to reunite separated families during the Korean War. New agreements between the North and the South came into being, facilitating a little more the negotiations between the two countries.

After this incident, the North Koreans declared that US forces had not obtained a delegation from North Korea, and that they had defended themselves against their attack. Kim Il-Sung demanded the dissolution of the United Nations Command in Korea, which will eventually be accepted.
But that did not stop the American forces because three days later, under the operation Paul Buynan, \”engineers of 2nd battalion of the American genius\” accompanied by \”engineers of the 9th regimental infantry\” were sent to cut the tree . Fortunately, there was no confrontation, nor heavy consequences, since in cutting down this poplar, the American forces left part of the stump of the tree.

The \’bridge of no return\’, so far used by the soldiers to the north as to the south, was condemned. Today, there is ample evidence that minefields have been installed on this one and all along the DMZ from the north.

Today, the JSA is a place very visited by tourists both Korean and foreign. It has become a real tourist attraction, attracting nearly 100,000 visitors every year. Previously very difficult to access, only the army could go there. Although secure and well guarded north and south, few incidents are taking place today. That\’s why, many tourists can visit it. Highly publicized, the JSA remains a rather dangerous place, especially since only a few centimeters separate the two countries but much less than before.
There are some fairly recent events, however, which show us that the war is not very old, such as the North-South passage by North Korean JSA soldiers trying to flee their country by defected accross the DMZ, and where again , the KPA do not hesitate to take out their weapons and shoot.

After the inter-Korean military agreement signed in Pyeongyang in September 2018, North Korea and South Korea agreed to remove all minefields at the JSA as well as throughout the DMZ, as well as the monitoring stations. But that\’s not all, since they also remove all weapons and amunition on both sides. The two presidents met for the first time at the JSA on April 27, when they were friendly, moving south and north, each in turn. The JSA will now be monitored by 70 \”unarmed\” soldiers; 35 North Korean soldiers to the north and 35 other South Korean soldiers, south of the MDL.

The next step would be to allow the passage of the MDL, for both tourists and soldiers, who could move freely throughout the area (from 9 am to 5 pm for tourists). There have not yet been any decisions taken by the two governments on when to authorize this passage. But after disarming the soldiers and removing all mines, the two governments should agree soon. For now, access to the JSA by tourists is prohibited. The goal of all this is to reduce tensions and persuade the North to stop all production and nuclear testing.

During the Korean War, tunnels running from the North to the South were built to facilitate access to the South by the North Koreans during the invasion.
These tunnels known as \”aggression\” by the South are four in number. They were only discovered in 1974, the last one in 1990. The South Korean government then accuses the North of not having complied with the 1953\’s armistice. The best known being the third tunnel of aggression discovered on October 17, 1974, near the village of Panjunmon, close to the JSA.
Today, we are not convinced that we have found all the tunnels dug by North Korea. However, the third tunnel of aggression is well visitable by the tourists who would come to the DMZ.

En conclusion :

Today, the DMZ is used as a tourist attraction but not only, it is also very publicized. Along the 250 kilometers and 4 kilometers wide, the DMZ remains a historic place, which tells us a lot about the history of Korea.

Built in 1953 after the Korean War, it still contains a lot of secrets just waiting to be discovered. Designated as the \’forbidden zone\’, it makes a lot of people talk about it, and journalists love it. Indeed, this year was for the DMZ, a year of glory. Notably thanks to the military agreement signed on September 19th, by the two representatives of each country, on the complete disarmament of the zone as well as the dismantling of barracks. But that\’s not all, the monitoring stations installed throughout the DMZ will also be closed.

The flagship attraction that works best with Korean and foreign tourists, the JSA, also announces big change ahead. Indeed, this 29th of October, we were informed, through the newspapers, that the MDL would be a distant memory, since the two states undertake to let the free movement throughout the area to soldiers and tourists. Then we can go from north to south, as we see fit. But this is not yet won, since the two states are in full reflection, knowing that this was already the case before 1976, but because of many unfortunate incidents, the border had been closed to traffic.
If the MDL no longer existed between the two states, it would certainly attract many foreign tourists in search of thrills. But Korean tourists may be fewer, certainly out of fear. Because yes, what could happen before, during and after the Korean War remains in the memories. Especially since some unfortunate incidents have occurred recently, especially the defector who went from north to south in 2017.
If the MDL is \’suppressed\’ and tourists can move freely throughout the area, the risk will be greater and the tension will be higher as soldiers have to keep an eye on each tourist.
Personally, if I visited the JSA, and the traffic was free, I would be even more afraid of not being protected if an incident occurs. I think that removing this line, this border between the two korea would only increase the fear of tourists that other unfortunate incidents occur. Despite the fact that the soldiers are not \’armed\’ and that the two Koreas have agreed to stop any hostile act near the border, the tension would be so great that the tourists would not feel safe, which is the most important.

But the JSA is not the only place to receive many tourists since indeed, on October 27 was inaugurated the cultural festival \”DMZ Transformation Peace Hanmadang\”, organized on a former American military base located near the border.

The aim is to « welcome the efforts made to transform the DMZ into a \’zone of peace\’. »

If before the DMZ was seen as a danger zone, today it is seen as a historical attraction that each individual must visit.
Everything is set up for visitors to feel the tension between the two states and can witness the \”dangerousness\” of it. Unfortunately, what was before a real border, is now more than a tourist place visited by thousands of visitors a year.
The tension is still there, but is it the reality or is it a staged overplayed in the south as in the north? Is visitor satisfaction now more important than the security of the country?
Is there any real utility at this border, especially since the MDL should soon be overrated. My answer would be, yes. After discussing it with South Koreans, my point of view changed. I thought before that the DMZ had no use at all, but what my friends in South Korea told me made me think. Indeed, the tensions are still there, they have never left the two countries, let alone the soldiers of the DMZ, who are constantly on their guard, day and night. Perhaps because I have never visited the DMZ, I could not feel the atmosphere there. However, the visitors who went there, could feel it. So I think the removal of this line is a bad idea. First of all because, in my opinion, this would remove any \”attractiveness\” to the JSA, but also because everything would no longer be under control in the zone.
So yes, contrary to what I thought when I started to treat the subject, I think that there is a real usefulness to the DMZ, despite the fact that it is today a real tourist attraction overplayed to satisfy the visitors.
Also, I think it\’s important to leave things as they are, especially for the environment. In fact, the area between the DMZ (north-south) is a nature reserve that includes over 2900 species of plants, 70 kinds of mammals and 320 different kinds of birds. Endangered species such as Siberian tiger, Amur Leopard or even the Asiatic Black Bear have been discovered there. For the respect of the environment and the preservation of this natural reserve, the best would be to leave everything as they are, and not to touch anything to avoid destroying nature.