Skip to main content

In Korea's Demilitarized Zone: Watching them, watching us

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
updated 1:10 AM EST, Fri December 23, 2011
  • The Demilitarized Zone runs along the 38th parallel which divides the Korean peninsula
  • Buffer area between Koreas is 250kms (160 miles) long and 4kms (2.5 miles) wide
  • The DMZ is considered one of the most heavily-fortified borders in the world

(CNN) -- A North Korean soldier lifts his binoculars, watching us watching him.

He is a matter of meters away from the border between North and South Korea in the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone -- ironically named as it is considered one of the most heavily-fortified borders in the world.

Between us stand the blue huts of the Joint Security Area, where countless negotiations have been held between the North, the South and the U.S. since 1953 when the Armistice was signed, ending the Korean War.

The border itself here is inauspicious: A slim concrete ridge raised just a few inches from the ground -- a simple slab divides one people into two diametrically opposed countries.

North and South Korean soldiers often face off across this border. There have been many bloody skirmishes over the years, but today both sides appear keen to avoid any misunderstandings or increase in tensions. Once we have our pictures, we, the media, are moved along quickly.

North Korea's Kim dynasty
North Korea power sharing?

The South Korean military has raised its level of alert since Kim Jong Il's death. The U.S. military will not be drawn on its own level.

"We are maintaining a level of readiness that is expected of us on any given day in the Republic of Korea," says Colonel Jonathan Withington, spokesperson for U.S. Forces in Korea, adding, "We have seen no unusual activity."

The DMZ runs along the 38th parallel which divides the Korean peninsula roughly in half. The buffer zone is 250kms (160 miles) long and 4kms (2.5 miles) wide.

Monitoring along this border will inevitably have been stepped up in the wake of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il -- potentially on both sides.

But for the U.S. and South Korean militaries, this limited view from the DMZ -- and satellite surveillance imagery -- are among the best bets for scrutinizing the most secretive and restricted country in the world.

Little wonder that both countries learned of the Dear Leader's demise not from their own intelligence agencies but from an emotional North Korean TV announcement.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:51 AM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
North Korea has "the world's most advantageous human rights system," the country declares.
updated 9:35 PM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Three Americans detained in North Korea spoke out about their conditions Monday in an exclusive interview with CNN.
updated 4:52 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
The crowd cheers as the stars make their way to the ring for first pro-wrestling bout North Korea has seen in almost 20 years.
updated 9:37 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
CNN's Will Ripley makes a rare live report from reclusive North Korea.
updated 10:45 AM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
CNN's Will Ripley is given a rare look inside North Korea and tours Kim Jong Un's pet project, a waterpark.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
North Korea rejected an invitation to the Pope's Mass in Seoul. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports.
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
As diplomats discuss a string of unsolved kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korea, the families of those abducted anxiously wait.
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
updated 11:13 PM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
North Korea says it plans to prosecute two American tourists that it detained earlier this year, accusing them of "perpetrating hostile acts."
updated 7:38 PM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
North Korea proposed that "all hostile military activities" with South Korea be halted, but it attached conditions that Seoul is likely to reject.
updated 8:23 PM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
North Korean state news is reporting the country test-launched "cutting-edge ultra precision tactical guided missiles."
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
James Franco won't be following Dennis Rodman into North Korea anytime soon.
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
Don't you hate it when the weatherman gets it wrong? Apparently, so does Kim Jong Un.
updated 7:44 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
New signs show Russia and North Korea are developing a closer relationship.
updated 8:12 PM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
Photographer Eric Lafforgue visited North Korea and shares his inside look at the most isolated country in the world.
updated 9:25 PM EDT, Mon May 12, 2014
Many North Koreans listen to illegal broadcasts on homemade radios, some are convinced to defect.
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
Jang Jin-Sung, a North Korean defector and former regime insider, speaks with CNN's Christiane Amanpour.