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Korea's Dangerous Divide
   
By Tom O'NeillPhotographs by Michael Yamashita



As North Korea steps up its nuclear threat, it's business as usual along the DMZ—the narrow strip of land that has split the Korean peninsula for 50 years. There the two armies, the South's backed by 20,000 U.S. troops, wait for the other to blink.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Also called the Joint Security Area, Panmunjom is little more than a collection of no-frills conference rooms bisected by the Military Demarcation Line. Here, 50 years ago, military representatives of China, North Korea, and the United Nations finalized the armistice agreement that stopped the Korean War. Today Panmunjom is the one place in the DMZ where delegates from North Korea and the UN Command force meet to discuss military, political, and logistical matters.

You might think, then, that Panmunjom is a decorous, grown-up place. Nope, says Lt. Chris Croninger of the UN Command force. "It's like a schoolyard with two bullies poking each other in the eye."

The rules of combat at Panmunjom emphasize mind games—psyching out the enemy. Each side blasts opposing hillsides with patriotic music and recorded messages. A giant signboard on the North Korean side warns—in Korean characters, which few of the Americans can read—"Yankee Go Home."

In one of the conference rooms North Koreans once sawed a few inches off chair legs so that their counterparts at the negotiating table would look small and silly. When North Koreans attended a meeting on another occasion with AK-47 assault rifles obviously hidden under their jackets, an armistice violation, American officers chose not to confront them. Instead the Americans took delight in jacking up the room's heat to equatorial levels just so that they could see their adversaries, unwilling to expose their weapons, squirm and sweat in their heavy clothes.

Lt. Charles Levine, a lanky South Carolinian who quit a rock band in 1998 and joined the Army, escorts me to Panmunjom to observe the mental war games. The occasion is a "body repatriation," involving the remains of four North Koreans who have washed down rivers into the south. Were they fishermen, soldiers, spies? Levine won't say.

We watch from a window as Red Cross officials from the South pass the coffins to soldiers from the North. But I hardly register the actual transfer. I can't take my eyes off the North Korean guards staring at us through the windows, close enough for us to see the red Kim Jong Il pins on their chests. Their hard stares unnerve me. "As a visitor you are not allowed to gesture at, or communicate with, the North Koreans. They want to provoke incidents," Lieutenant Levine has warned me. That doesn't stop him from shooting dark glances of his own. I also notice Major Kim, the South Korean officer I had interviewed, toeing the Military Demarcation Line—which here is a strip of concrete between the buildings—and glaring like a bad dream at the North Korean soldiers, who glare back.

You wonder if they practice this stuff in front of a mirror. In fact, the soldiers at Panmunjom are chosen for their intimidating appearance. The South Koreans here must stand at least five feet eight (170 centimeters), two inches (5 centimeters) taller on average than their countrymen; a black belt in martial arts is also required. The Americans assigned to Panmunjom are plucked at airports from the batches of GIs arriving from overseas, selected for height—six feet (180 centimeters) or more is preferred—and for physical bearing. The North Korean sentinels are no slouches either—ramrod straight, steely eyed, and among the best fed people in their famine-threatened country.

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Online Extra

Discover the strip of heavily armed land that may be the flashpoint of war between the two Koreas in this multimedia special.


Video

Apache helicopter maneuvers? Target practice with tanks? Life inside the DMZ is truly another world.


Forum

What options are available to the international community for forcing North Korea to disarm?


Flashback

Go back to 1910 when Korea's political differences divided families.




More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Efforts to make contact with family members separated by the division of the Korean peninsula bore fruit for 560 South Koreans in late February, when they traveled north with the Inter-Korean Reunion of Separated Families. Although it was the sixth such reunion, the trip marked a first: The pilgrims took a newly opened overland route right through the Demilitarized Zone. The use of the cross-border road didn't just make their journey to North Korea's Mount Kumgang reunion site more convenient than the sea route used by participants in earlier reunions—it also symbolized the earnest hope of many thousands of Koreans that the path to such meetings in the future will become smoother and swifter.

Acknowledging and planning for the fulfillment of these dreams, the Red Cross in North Korea has agreed to provide a building site in the Mount Kumgang resort area as well as working personnel for a 1,000-person capacity reunion center. Its southern counterpart has pledged the building materials and equipment. Groundbreaking was expected in April, with a one-year target completion date.

Anyone interested in keeping up with these efforts may read the monthly reports posted by the South Korean Ministry of Unification at www.unikorea.go.kr.

—Nancie Majkowski

Did You Know?


Related Links
The DMZ Forum
www.dmzforum.org
Read about conservationists' work toward establishing a peace park and environmental laboratory in the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

U.S. Army Second Infantry Division (2ID)
www-2id.korea.army.mil
Gain insights into the work and life of members of the 2ID through many informative links, including one to the Indianhead, the division's biweekly newspaper.

Council on Foreign Relations
www.cfr.org/background/background_northkorea_crisis.php
Examine analysis of the events leading to the tensions created by North Korea over its possible nuclear capabilities in the Council's "North Korea: Background on the Crisis" presentation.

South Korean National Intelligence Service
www.nis.go.kr/eng/north/defense_index.html
This site analyzes North Korean news and follows developments in many aspects of life there.

United Nations Command/U.S. Forces Korea
www.usfk.mil
Review background papers on historical and contemporary topics related to the armed forces maintaining the security of the DMZ and Joint Security Area.

International Crane Foundation (ICF)
www.savingcranes.org/species
Read about the ICF's conservation and education efforts on behalf of the red-crowned cranes that winter in the DMZ, as well as profiles of over a dozen other species.

South Korean Ministry of National Defense
www.mnd.go.kr
This site contains current defense reports comparing the military capabilities of South Korea and North Korea.

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Bibliography
Alexander, Bevin. Korea: The First War We Lost. Hippocrene Books, 2000.

Bermudez, Joseph S., Jr. The Armed Forces of North Korea. I. B.Tauris, 2001.

Harrison, Selig S. Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement. Princeton University, 2002.

Hodge, Homer T. "North Korea's Military Strategy," Parameters (April 1, 2003).

Kim, Chae-Han. The Korean DMZ—Reverting Beyond Division. Sowha, 2001.

Kim, Ke Chung. "Preserving Biodiversity in Korea's Demilitarized Zone," Science (October 10, 1997), 242-43.

Kirkbride, Wayne A. Panmunjom: Facts About the Korean DMZ. Hollym, 1985.

Natsios, Andrew S. The Great North Korean Famine: Famine, Politics, and Foreign Policy. United States Institute of Peace Press, 2001.

Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas, 2nd ed. Basic Books, 2001.

Oh, Kongdan, and Ralph C. Hassig, editors. Korea Briefing 2000-2001: First Steps Toward Reconciliation and Reunification. M. E. Sharpe Publishers, 2002.

Snyder, Scott. Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior. United States Institute of Peace Press, 1999.

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NGS Resources
Knipp, Steven. "Doing the DMZ," National Geographic Adventure (April 2000), EA10-11.

"Ages of Conflict Spur Fight Over Sea's Name," National Geographic (October 1996), Geographica.

Kim, Edward H. "A Rare Look at North Korea," National Geographic (August 1974), 252-77.

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