The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

The cease-fire line determined on July 27, 1953, when the armistice was signed, is a line that roughly parallels the 38th parallel; it dips slightly south of the 38th parallel in the west and runs 50 miles north of the parallel to the east. This line and the surrounding area, a buffer zone extending 1.24 miles (2 km) north and 1.24 miles south of the line, form what is called the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.

Contrary to its name, the zone is one of the most heavily armed areas in the world. The land within the Demilitarized Zone is heavily mined, armed sol-diers patrol each side, and behind the lines on both sides are heavy artillery and tanks.

The DMZ continues to be a flash point in the conflict between the two sides. From time to time there have been incidents in the DMZ—shootings, line crossings of defectors, and a propaganda battle in which large loudspeakers encourage the opposing soldiers to enter the paradise on the other side. Sometimes soldiers with debts or family problems on one side have sought “freedom” by crossing over to the other side. Such soldiers have included Americans.

In the western DMZ, not far from Seoul to the south and Kaesong to the north, lies the village Panmunjom, where north and south meet to discuss issues related to the two halves of the peninsula. These meet-ings are supervised by members of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC), a team of neutral nation observers established by the Korean Armistice Agreement ending the war.

Originally, the neutral nations were Switzerland and Sweden, affiliated with South Korea, and Poland and Czechoslovakia, affiliated with North Korea. The Czech component of the NNSC was forced out by North Korea in 1993, and the Polish component was forced out in 1995. They were no longer communist and no longer trusted by the DPRK.

The negotiators from the South are represented by the United Nations, the United States, and the Republic of Korea (ROK). The other side is represented only by North Korea, a fact it uses for propaganda purposes: Stating that it is independent and not beholden to any other nation, North Korea accuses the South Koreans of being puppets of American imperialists.


One of the more troubling issues of the Korean War has been the atroci-ties committed by both sides. The U.S. forces have been accused of indiscriminant bombing of cities in the North with napalm, an incen-diary jelly meant to stick to its targets. Napalm burned wide swaths of land, and napalm fires could even suck the air out of tunnels and under-ground bunkers. The widespread use of napalm destroyed many cities in North Korea. Its later use in Vietnam led to a UN ban in 1980.

The Korean War was both a conventional and guerrilla war. North Korean soldiers were known to shed their uniforms, wear civilian clothes, and launch surprise attacks. Civilian partisans, whether devoted to the North Korean cause or threatened into helping, were also said to participate in surprise attacks on UN forces. The suspi-cion that harmless-looking women and old men might actually be working for the enemy led American soldiers to kill civilians.

Charles Grutzner, a war correspondent for the New York Times, wrote that “fear of infiltrators led to the slaughter of hundreds of South Korean civilians, women as well as men, by some US troops and police of the Republic.” Another American correspondent wrote, “It is not the time to be a Korean, for the Yankees are shooting them all . . . ner-vous American troops are ready to fire at any Korean” (Haliday and Cumings 1988, 88).

In 1999 the U.S. government issued a formal study on Nogun-ri, a village where American soldiers allegedly killed between 200 and 300 South Korean civilians in the midst of the chaos of the retreat from Seoul in the first month of the war. The study concluded that the American soldiers had killed civilians, probably because they believed that North Korean soldiers had infiltrated the column of refugees. The report concluded that some of the more sensational allegations, such as that the air force strafed the refugee column, were not true.

Another heart-wrenching case was the demolition of a bridge over the Naktong River, just outside of Taegu. The American military had orders to blow up the bridge after crossing it so that the advancing North Korean army could not use it. The Americans tried three times to close the bridge, but desperate refugees kept on coming. The first two groups of refugees were able to cross safely, but not the third. By that point the soldiers could wait no longer: They destroyed the bridge, killing the refugees who were crossing.

The Korean War created an estimated 5 million refugees as people fled battle zones and cities under siege (Oberdorfer 2001, 10). A great many more lost their homes when the UN forces decided on a system-atic program of destroying small villages that were being used as shelter by North Korean guerrillas (Cumings 2005, 294–295). An estimated 10 million Koreans belonged to families that were separated by the line that divides North Korea from South Korea. The war, by making unifi-cation a more distant prospect, made that separation permanent.

North Korea as well was responsible for atrocities and war crimes during the conflict. The Korean People’s Army killed hundreds of American prisoners of war by outright execution and let thousands more starve to death in prisoner of war camps. There are well-docu-mented accounts of mass murders of South Koreans by North Koreans and disputed cases as well (Haliday and Cumings 1988, 92).

The word brainwashing first entered the American lexicon during the Korean War. Brainwashing is an attempt to break down the personali-ties of prisoners so that they will do anything their captors demand. It is thought to have first been used by the Chinese but probably only upon one group of prisoners. “The notion that the Chinese ‘brainwashed’ the bulk of their prisoners in Korea is simply unfounded,” writes the British military historian Max Hastings. “

They appear to have employed the sophisticated techniques generally associated with this term only in one case—that of the American aircrew from whom they extracted con-fessions of participation in bacteriological warfare, their most notable propaganda achievement” (Hastings 1987, 301). Some historians, the most authoritative being Bruce Cumings, are not sure whether brain-washing was used even in this case; he notes that while 10 of the air-men subsequently retracted their confessions, the other 16 did not.

He therefore considers it possible that the confessions were true, and that the United States actually did experiment with bacteriological warfare in the Korean War. Both the brainwashing accusation and the germ warfare accusation are closely linked to the cold war propaganda of the 1950s, and they still await objective study.

Whether or not any UN prisoners were brainwashed, many were subjected to brutal interrogations, sleep deprivation, and physical abuse in the course of a strenuous and rather clumsy effort by the Chinese to convert their prisoners to communism.

As part of this pro-gram, the prisoners were treated to long lectures on such topics as “The Democratic Reformation and Democratic Structure in North Korea and the Peaceful Unification Policy of the North Korean Government,” “The Chinese People’s Right to Formosa,” and “Corruption of the UN by the American warmongers” (Hastings 1987, 294–295).

The Korean War was a stalemate. After three years of violence and death, of relocations and separated families, the two halves of Korea returned to where they had been before the war, with injured, maimed, and wounded on both sides. Neither side gained anything; both sides lost much in the way of life and property.

The Korean War was both a civil war and a product of the confron-tation between international superpowers in the cold war. There were millions of victims. They include not just the millions of people killed and not just the millions who were wounded.

They encompass not just the millions of refugees and not just the 10 million who were separated from family members, but all 40 million Koreans affected by the war at the time, and even more counting those born after the war.

The effects of the war continue. The peninsula is still divided. In both countries the near presence of a feared enemy has been used to justify political repression and the maintenance of huge armed forces, absurdly dispro-portionate to the size of these two small countries.

Both sides waste a huge percentage of their gross national product on armaments; both have been molded in obvious ways and subtle ways by the memory of a terrible war that technically has never ended.