Waged the length of the Korean Peninsula for just more than three years, the Korean War pitted the Soviet-backed communist forces of the North Korean People's Army (KPA), and later of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army (CPVA), against the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) and United Nations (UN) forces led by the United States. The war both began and ceased with opposing troops stationed in the vicinity of the 38th Parallel, and although the Armistice Agreement ended major military operations, the tenuous finish to the first and limited hot war of the Cold War era ensured a tense atmosphere and the potential for lethal violence across the DMZ during the next fifty years.
Negotiators agreed upon the 1953 cease-fire within the confines of Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA), a series of buildings inside the DMZ divided eventually by the MDL. Also located at Panmunjom is the Bridge of No Return, or Freedom Bridge, the single surviving span across the Imjin River used by both sides to repatriate prisoners of war shortly after the end of hostilities. The Bridge of No Return was the scene of the most infamous DMZ incident when, on 18 August 1976, U.S. Army Captain Arthur Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett were axed to death by KPA personnel while trimming a poplar tree impeding sight lines from UN checkpoints within the JSA. These deaths marked the first fatalities inside the JSA in twenty-three years and were interpreted by Washington as an intentional provocation by the DPRK leadership in response to heightened tensions on the peninsula. The U.S. reaction, Operation paul bunyan, was swift. Three days after the murders, an eighty-man force of engineers, security force personnel, and tae kwon do experts, backed by an entourage of helicopter gunships, jet aircraft, and the entire Midway carrier battle group, removed the tree.
Potentially hostile action has also occurred south of the MDL, as evidenced by the 1974 discovery of a tunnel emanating from North Korea that ran 1,000 yards into the southern portion of the DMZ. Subsequent tunnels found in 1975, 1978, and 1990 led U.S. military experts to estimate that perhaps two dozen had been dug by KPA forces.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the Korean DMZ became the world's most heavily armed border. Lined on both sides by land mines, heavy artillery, and more than 1.5 million soldiers, the DMZ remained a Cold War flash point that outlived even the superpower standoff itself, a reminder of the perils of the Cold War rivalry.
Robert G. Berschinski
Hermes, Walter G. The United States Army in the Korean War: Truce Tent and Fighting Front. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966.; Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. Revised and updated ed. New York: Basic Books, 2002.