Why North Korean Soldiers Continue to Cross the World's Most Heavily Guarded Border

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) stands as the most heavily guarded border in the world, yet North Korean soldiers continue to cross it, raising tensions and concerns

by Sededin Dedovic
Why North Korean Soldiers Continue to Cross the World's Most Heavily Guarded Border
© Carl Court / Getty Images

Do not trust the name, as the Demilitarized Zone between the two rival Koreas might be the most heavily armed place in the world, writes Time. Two million mines, barbed wire fences, tank traps, and tens of thousands of soldiers from both countries patrol the divided land that is 248 kilometers long and four kilometers wide.

North Korean soldiers continue to wander across the line that separates the North from the South, causing South Korea to fire warning shots for the third time this month. The short answer seems to be the foliage: due to the lush greenery, the North Koreans might not have seen the signs marking the thin military demarcation line that divides the DMZ into the northern and southern sides.

But this is also just the latest entry in a long, often violent history of the unique border established after the Korean War of 1950-53. The war ended with an armistice, rather than a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula divided and technically still in a state of war.

What happened?

South Korea said on Friday that it fired warning shots the previous day to repel several North Korean soldiers who briefly crossed the demarcation line that divides the two countries. Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North Koreans withdrew shortly after South Korean troops broadcast warnings and fired shots into the air but did not immediately release more details.

Similar incidents occurred on June 9 and June 18, each involving about 20 to 30 North Korean soldiers who briefly crossed the demarcation line and then retreated after South Korean troops broadcast audible warnings and fired warning shots.

The South Korean military says the incursions were likely accidents, noting that the North Koreans did not return fire and quickly retreated.

North Korean soldiers ride on a boat near border© Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

What does the demarcation line look like?

In many parts of the DMZ, the demarcation line is simply a sign posted on a stick or piece of concrete.

People have crossed it before, under very special circumstances, usually in the border village of Panmunjom. Former U.S. President Donald Trump walked with Kim Jong Un there. Last year, a U.S. soldier facing possible military discipline crossed the line to the North.

Outside of Panmunjom, much of the DMZ is wilderness but is heavily monitored from both sides. While the demarcation line can be easily crossed, it's very difficult to do so without being immediately noticed. The southern side of the land border is protected not only by thousands of soldiers, rifles, and mines but also by a dense network of cameras, motion sensors, and other high-tech surveillance equipment.

Breaches are very rare and usually detected quickly. Defections from the North are also uncommon along the land border between North and South Korea, though they have often occurred along the porous border between China and North Korea and occasionally in the Yellow Sea.

Because overgrown trees and plants might have obscured signs marking the demarcation line, says Seoul, North Korean troops might have crossed the line without being aware of it.

Why are so many North Koreans in the Demilitarized Zone?

Relations between the rival Koreas are now worse than before.

In recent weeks, a mutual clash has resulted in a Cold War-style psychological warfare. Both sides have said they no longer consider themselves bound by a significant 2018 military agreement aimed at reducing tensions. North Koreans along the border, says Seoul, are setting up what appear to be anti-tank barriers, reinforcing roads, and laying land mines, even as mine explosions have killed or injured an unspecified number of North Korean soldiers.

Construction began around April and might represent an attempt to curb North Koreans trying to defect to the South, according to the South Korean military. Hostility may worsen as Kim continues to accelerate the development of his nuclear weapons and missiles and aligns with Russian President Vladimir Putin, both facing their own escalating conflicts with Washington.

The South Korean government condemned the Kim-Putin agreement at their summit this week, where the two nations pledged to assist each other if attacked. In response, Seoul said it would consider sending weapons to Ukraine to help it fight the Russian invasion.

Could it happen again?

Possible, especially if North Korean construction continues along the demarcation line. But both sides seem intent on confining their animosity to the psychological warfare they are engaging in.

Still, there is concern that hostilities are pushing them closer to direct military conflict. The Koreas have not held significant talks for years, and it might be difficult for them to establish dialogue as tensions rise over the North's nuclear weapons development.

Some analysts say the poorly marked western border of Korea—a site of clashes and attacks in recent years—is more likely to be a flashpoint than the land border. Kim, during a fiery speech in January, reiterated that his country does not recognize the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea, drawn by the U.S.-led UN Command at the end of the war.

North Korea insists on a border that cuts deep into waters controlled by South Korea. While the vast military presence on both sides of the DMZ means that years sometimes pass without incidents, violence can erupt quickly. For instance, North Korean soldiers killed two U.S. officers in 1976.