The DMZ: A Short History

What’s the DMZ?

Electrified fences, warnings of hidden land mines, armed soldiers, a waiver form to sign, and a heavily controlled tour add to the post-apocalyptic ambiance at the DMZ. But what exactly is the DMZ?

Putting it simply, the DMZ is the buffer zone that separates North and South Korea. It’s a surreal place: fraught with tension and yet, somewhere that tourists can visit.

To make the most of your trip, we’d suggest clueing yourself up on the history of the DMZ. (Sara probably wishes she’d done that, rather than enduring unsolicited long-winded lectures from Ellie).

And this is where we come in. We’ve slimmed down years worth of history into one short post so you can a) have some background knowledge and b) not get bored to tears if you’re visiting with a history enthusiast.


Everything is kicking off in 1945.

The Japanese finally surrendered after the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which brought about the end of the Second World War. What’s that got to do with Korea? Well, since 1910, Korea had been a Japanese colony so 1945 also saw the end of colonial rule in Korea.

But it doesn’t stop there. When one war ends another begins, and 1945 marks the start of deteriorating relations which led to the Cold War. Pausing now for some context before we return to Korea. What’s the Cold War? If you guessed that it’s something to do with armies fighting in Antarctica, then you’re way off the mark.

The Cold War is a war of ideologies. Communism versus democracy. In one corner, you have the Soviet Union representing communism, and in the other, you have the U.S. representing democracy. Both wanted to expand their ideology and both were fearful of the other’s.

Okay, so back to Korea. After the Japanese surrendered, there was a political vacuum in the newly liberated Korea. What ideology would they use to govern? Would they be team communism or team democracy?

Fearing the spread of communism, the U.S. rushed in to support South Korea. Wishing to see communism expand, the Soviet Union went in and backed North Korea. Soon after, a boundary was established – and not in the mental health kind of way.

This boundary was the 38th parallel and it split Korea in two, from east to west. It was supposed to be a temporary measure until the country was ready to self-govern. But just like One Direction’s ‘temporary’ breakup – it soon became permanent.


There was a lot of fighting along the 38th parallel and 1948 saw tensions reach a new high. This is because both Koreas established their own separate government. In the South, the U.S. backed Syngman Rhee and in the North, the Soviets backed Kim Il-Sung.

So now it’s official. We have two separate republics: the Republic of Korea, aka South Korea, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, aka North Korea, (Democratic, oh the irony).

And, to be frank, the two leaders were far from the type either Korea needed at a time of rebuilding.

In the north, you had Kim Il-Sung channeling his inner Stalin (not our first pick of leader to emulate). Purging political opponents, repressing his people, and creating a cult of personality were high priorities on Kim Il-Sung’s questionable agenda.

Meanwhile, in the south, Syngman Rhee wasn’t getting off to the best start either and had built a reputation for authoritarianism and corruption. Remind us again why people take such offense to the idea of high-profile female politicians?


Fast forward. We now have two separate Koreas, and tensions that dwarf Selena and Hailey’s – not that ENews would have you believe it.

It’s June 25th 1950, and North Korea launch a surprise invasion on the South. Within a few days, the North had taken Seoul.

And there you have it. The start of the Korean War.

President Truman feared the start of another World War and declared a national emergency, while the U.N. gave the go-ahead for military intervention. Sixteen countries, all part of the anti-communism U.N. clique, went to the aid of South Korea, with the U.S. leading the forces.

A stunned North Korea hastily sought aid elsewhere to try and even the playing field. Remember we mentioned how the Soviet Union had rushed in to support North Korea back in 1948? Well, by 1950 they had withdrawn. Their objective had been to get Kim Il Sung in charge, and they’d achieved that, so what was the point in hanging around? Enter: China.

This was the fellow communist country that came to North Korea’s aid in October 1950 and the Soviet Union later joined in 1951.


The Korean War took place from 1950-1953, but before we get into that we’re going on a brief (but important) tangent. The Korean War was also known as a proxy war.

Technical terms aside, a proxy war is a conflict fought by two major countries who use a third party to fight on their behalf. This is precisely what happened in Korea.

Communism versus democracy; the Soviet Union versus the United States (and co.) The two major superpowers were fighting each other through the two Koreas. Both the Soviet Union and the U.S. gave military and economic aid to the Korea that they had backed during the conflict, which was a backdrop to the ongoing Cold War.

Tangent over, and back to Korea. There was heavy fighting between 1950-1953, with the death toll reaching the millions though the figure for the North Korean and Chinese sides is still unknown.

Finally, the conflict came to a stalemate in 1953 near to the 38th parallel and on July 27th 1953, an Armistice Agreement was signed by the U.N command, North Korea and China.

Interesting fact: the Armistice did not officially end the war. It’s not a Peace Treaty, but an agreement to begin a ceasefire. So, technically speaking, North Korea and South Korea are still at war to this day.

The Creation of The DMZ

Lots of things were discussed during the Armistice Talks, but we’re focusing on one thing in particular: the drawing up of a ceasefire line, also known as the Military Demarcation Line. Using this line, a buffer zone (2.5 miles in width) was created too.

We’re sure you know where this is going.

It’s this buffer zone which is known as the Korean demilitarized zone or DMZ.

And there you have it. The history which brought about the DMZ. Not only are you more clued up before your visit, but you’re also in the position to dazzle friends with your new-found knowledge. You can thank us later.

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