The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a swath of land cutting across the Korean Peninsula, separating North from South Korea. It crosses over the 38th parallel, spanning about 151 miles (248 kilometers), and is 2.5 miles (4 km) wide. It is an area meant to buffer the tensions between the two countries, which are technically still at war with each other. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL), which was set during the Armistice Agreement in 1953, runs down the middle of the zone.
The DMZ is said to be one of the last remaining fronts of the Cold War, part of a conflict that has yet to be resolved between the two countries. Although the cease fire was signed in 1953, no peace agreement or treaty was signed, and as a result, fighting could conceivably resume at any time. This accounts for the extreme tension and hostility that remains in the area to this day. It is the most heavily armed and guarded border in the world: nearly two million soldiers patrol both sides of the area. This number is comprised of about one million North Korean soldiers, 600,000 South Koreans, and 37,000 American soldiers.
At the end of World War II, the 38th parallel stood as the border between the portion of Korea controlled by the US and that controlled by the Soviets. In 1948, it became a battlefront between supporters of democracy and supporters of communism. The northerners, backed by the Soviets, pushed into the south, but they were eventually pushed back over the 38th parallel. Negotiations took place at what is now called the Joint Security Area, a compound that sits directly on top of the MDL. This is a place where the North Koreans can meet with the South Koreans and Americans.
A watchdog group, the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, which is made up of Swedish and Swiss officers, observes the DMZ. The US contingent is present for the most part due to a treaty signed in 1954, when the Americans pledged to help defend South Korea in the event of the resumption of war.
Soldiers from both sides can patrol within the DMZ, but they cannot step foot over the MDL. There have been a few isolated skirmishes, including the Axe Murder Incident in 1976, which ended in the death of two American soldiers. Several tunnels have been discovered under the area that were dug by the North Koreans, possibly as part of a plan to invade the south. The North Koreans often broadcast propaganda over loudspeakers and have constructed what is known as the tallest flagpole, at 525 feet (160 meters) tall. Strangely, the zone has also become a tourist attraction, attracting thousands of people annually.
Because this ribbon of land has remained untouched, except for barbed wire and landmines, it has become somewhat of a de facto nature reserve. It currently protects species that are endangered or extinct in other parts of the Korean peninsula, including the Korean tiger. Untouched by industrialization and agricultural development, the DMZ ironically provides a peaceful refuge for indigenous species.