Written by michaelhudson on 18 Sep, 2004
The DMZ is an oxymoron, its history a litany of gruesome murders, interminable discussions, and episodes straight of your first day at nursery school. Four kilometers wide and almost 250km long; home to wetlands, forests, and endangered species; watched over by two million soldiers;…Read More
The DMZ is an oxymoron, its history a litany of gruesome murders, interminable discussions, and episodes straight of your first day at nursery school. Four kilometers wide and almost 250km long; home to wetlands, forests, and endangered species; watched over by two million soldiers; and liberally peppered with land mines, it was once described by Bill Clinton as "the scariest place on Earth."
One of the more dangerous episodes in the DMZ’s history occurred on the morning of August 18, 1976. Two U.S. and one South Korean officer accompanied a group of workmen to a 40-foot poplar tree near the Bridge of No Return, whose thick branches were obscuring views between two U.N. guard posts. As they were pruning the lower branches, they were attacked by North Korean troops armed with clubs, crow bars, knives, and axes - both U.S. officers were killed, along with eight other men. In response, the Americans moved an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to within striking distance, North Korea mobilised their troops for war, and the U.S. commander in Korea saw no choice but to ask for authorisation to use nuclear weapons in the event of the North attacking Seoul. Three days after the murder American soldiers cut the tree down, the other side blinked, and war was averted. You can read a fascinating account of the incident here
Eight years later, a Soviet tour guide called Vasily Matauzik ran across the M.D.L. while on a North Korean tour of the JSA. Four soldiers were killed and a further six wounded in the ensuing 20-minute gun battle.
Daeseong-dong is the only permanent civilian settlement inside the DMZ. Its 200 inhabitants are exempt from military service and income taxes and have their own elementary school with a member of staff for each of its fourteen pupils. Most of the residents make their living growing rice and ginseng, farming an average of seventeen acres each compared to the national average of just three. To live in the village, you must have been resident there in 1953 or a direct descendant of someone who was – men can bring their wives to the village but females who marry outsiders must leave. Everyone has to be out of the fields by dark and locked indoors before 11pm for their own safety; in a recent provocation, North Korean soldiers stepped across the border and sat in chairs watching the farmers harvesting their crop.
On the other side of the border, the North has its own settlement, Gijong-dong. When Daeseong-dong got a South Korean flag on top of a 1m tall flagpole, Gijong-dong built one 60m taller, with a flag measuring 30 by 20m. Workers travel to the village from the nearby city of Gaeseong by day and are bussed back at night – only a small maintenance crew live here permanently, looking after the flag, and making sure the automated lights for the hollow five and six-storey apartment blocks work.
That’s far from the only case of petty point scoring, however. All South Korean and U.S. troops in the JSA are deliberately chosen for their above average height – the North Koreans grew so tired of being looked down upon at the conference table that they snuck into the M.A.C. hut and sawed the legs off the Americans’ chairs. In a separate incident, the U.S. side suspected that the North Korean participants were illegally carrying weapons during the talks, concealed under heavy coats and layered clothing. Their response was to turn the heat up full blast in the room. The North Koreans didn’t remove their coats and sweated it out. But the most famous case goes back to two flags: both sides had flags of equal size on the table during their meetings. One day, a flag was brought in that was slightly larger than the other. Thereafter, each alternate day brought a new flag, each one a little bit bigger than the largest from the day before. Eventually the flags got so big that neither side could get them through the door.