No Man’s Land: The Korean Demilitarized Zone


I’m about to get technical for a second, so listen up and try not to fall asleep. When two military powers (usually countries) can’t work their problems out, a demilitarized zone (DMZ) may be created. Their purpose is to serve as a buffer between two or more parties to avoid conflict. As such, neither side is allowed to control this area for military purposes. Parties are generally allowed to have peacekeeping forces and police personnel in the DMZ, providing they are only there to maintain law and order.

Demilitarized zones are recognised under international law, most prominently in the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, relating to international armed conflicts. Article 60 creates a blueprint for demilitarized zones, outlining some basic principles and practices for parties to consider when establishing a DMZ. Importantly, Article 60(3) recognises that each case should adapt this template for each given situation. Article 60 also identifies that if either party breaches the restrictions within the agreement, the agreement is nullified and the party forfeits the protection afforded to them by the international community. Demilitarized zones usually rely on global support, because DMZ agreements are mostly between two sovereign nations. As such, the United Nations is frequently involved with creating and enforcing agreements.

The most interesting example of a DMZ is the Korean Demilitarized Zone. It was established under the Armistice Agreement in 1953, with the support of the United Nations. The Korean DMZ spans the entire width of the Korean peninsula, dividing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Running directly through the DMZ is the Military Demarcation Line, which neither side is allowed to cross. The DMZ area covers two kilometres north and south of the line. The Armistice Agreement limits the number of military personnel and the types of weapons allowed into the area. As a consequence, the areas immediately north and south of the Korean Demilitarized Zone are some of the most heavily guarded areas in the world.

Since the demarcation of the Korean DMZ, a number of violent and politically significant incidents have broken out. In 1968, a unit from the North Korean People’s Army special forces attempted to assassinate the South Korean President, Park Chung-hee. Between 1974 and 1990, South Korea discovered four incursion tunnels built by North Korea. North Korea claimed these tunnels were for coal mining, but no coal was found and the tunnels had no branches for mining. North Korea has never admitted these tunnels were intended to invade South Korea.  There have been multiple breaches of the agreement by the parties through military force, however the Korean DMZ generally remains effective. The United Nations continues to offer their moral support and assists in maintaining order in and around the DMZ.

Demilitarized zones can be an effective tool to minimise conflict between countries. In many cases, including with the Korean DMZ, they concentrate military resources into regulating the areas surrounding demilitarized zones. They can also create greater tensions, because the conflict may become a matter of technicalities, where each side is overly concerned with their border being crossed. Demilitarized zones can also make it more difficult for trade and travel between those countries. The Korean DMZ was created at the end of the Korean War, with the intention of limiting direct conflict between South Korea and North Korea. It has largely served this purpose despite actions from both parties which undermine the agreement.

Louisa Nancarrow is in her final year of her Bachelor of Arts (Law, Political Science & International Relations) at The University of Western Australia. She spends far too much time putting items that she cannot afford into online shopping carts.


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