US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday it may be necessary to take preemptive military action against North Korea if the threat from its weapons program were to reach a level “that we believe requires action.”
Tillerson’s comments came after he visited the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea — a heavily fortified strip of land that may be the tensest place on the planet.
Although the Korean War is technically over for the U.S., the North and South are still very much at war — maintaining guard towers and thousands of troops facing each other, waiting for the next invasion.
The buffer zone created by the 1953 Armistice between North and South is called the demilitarized zone (DMZ), although there’s a huge military presence. This border is filled with fencing, mines, and troops on both sides with itchy trigger fingers.
This relic of the Cold War has seen plenty of very hot engagements: Over 300 American and South Korean, and almost 400 North Korean soldiers were killed in firefights in 1969, and there are numerous instances of infiltrators from the North being scared back only by the sound of warning shots.
We’ve picked out the highlights from National Geographic‘s Inside North Korea and other sources.
The Korean War may seem like it’s over, but the armistice of 1953 only brought on a stalemate and both North and South are still at war.
At the 38th parallel lies the de-militarized zone (DMZ), with troops stationed along both sides in case the other decides to attack.
And attacks have happened many times. North Korean soldiers killed two US Army officers here in 1976 at “The Bridge of No Return” — named because captured NK prisoners hardly ever wished to go back home.
The North and South both have towns inside the DMZ area.
And when the South raised a big 323-foot-tall flag pole with their flag waving …
… the North responded with a taller one, at 525 feet.
This somewhat absurd feud over who had the taller flag became known as ‘The Flagpole War.’
And although the South actually has people inside its town, the North’s is a “propaganda village” with empty buildings in a feeble attempt to gain defectors from the South.
But probably the most heated part of the border is at the Joint Security Area.
This is where soldiers of the North and South stand mere feet from each other in a more than 60-year staring contest.
Just a small slab of concrete separates dictatorship from democracy.
With US soldiers backing them up …
… all three of the best South Korean guards look into the North …
… as 3 North Korean soldiers stand opposite. Rumor is that they face each other in case one decides to run into the South. The one facing the camera likely keeps anyone else from heading south.
There’s plenty of pageantry and marching when guards are relieved, to show the other Army ‘how much better their side is.’
But sometimes messages need to be passed. Although they have an old crank phone, the North doesn’t always respond.
Even trying to send word to repatriate bodies of North Korean soldiers back to their home is only passed through a megaphone.
And in between there are buildings set up for meetings between the two countries, which don’t get used very often.
In this small room, a tourist can walk around the conference table and say they’ve been in both North and South Korea.
And when soldiers of the South go inside, the North always keeps a watchful eye.
But if they need to open the door into the North, they hold hands to make sure they’re not pulled in.
Unity between the two countries seems unlikely any time soon, as neither wishes to budge.
You’ve seen one of the craziest borders in the world …