What Is a DMZ?

The DMZ between North and South Korea, which runs roughly along the 38th Parallel.
The Korean DMZ, one of the tensest international borders on Earth today. Jeon Heon-Kyun / Getty Images

A DMZ or demilitarized zone is a strip of land dividing two opposing military forces. These zones are usually a result of a treaty or agreement between the warring parties.  In this officially neutral area, the warring factions are not allowed to maintain troops or installations, and they are prohibited from conducting any military operations.  DMZs generally follow existing borders or boundaries of nations or internal regions, although this is not necessarily true in every case.

The most famous present-day DMZ is the one dividing North Korea and South Korea, roughly along the 38th Parallel. Korea's DMZ was established by the UN in 1953, when the Korean War Armistice was negotiated.  Technically, the two nations are still at war, and the Korean DMZ is the most heavily fortified border in the world.  The DMZ is about 160 miles (250 km) long, running from the Sea of Japan (East Sea) in the east to the East China Sea in the west.  The two Koreas exchange fire across the line fairly regularly.  Despite that, the DMZ is a very popular tourist destination, giving visitors from the southern side a glimpse of North Korea.

The Korean DMZ is about 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) wide, and serves as a de facto wildlife refuge since humans are barred from the area.  Rare and endangered species including red-crowned cranes, musk deer, black bears, and Amur gorals have been spotted there.

 Local farmers have informed me that there are even a couple of tigers in the DMZ, although to my knowledge this has not been confirmed by scientists.  Unfortunately, the DMZ is heavily mined, and the larger animals sometimes step on and set off the landmines.

During the Vietnam War, there was a DMZ between North and South Vietnam, as well.

 It followed the course of the Ben Hai River, roughly, and ran from the border with Laos in the west to the South China Sea in the East.  The Vietnamese DMZ was officially agreed to at the 1954 Geneva Conference, and lasted as the official border between North and South Vietnam until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, when the North overran the South and reunited the country.  

Today, the Vietnamese DMZ is a tourist attraction like its Korean equivalent, though of course Vietnam is no longer at war.  More than 40 years after the war ended, visitors have to be careful to stay on the roads and paths, because unexploded ordinance litters the area.

There are several additional active DMZs in Asia currently.  These include the UN-controlled zone between the Golan Heights (held by Israel) and the rest of Syria.  This DMZ was created by UN Security Council Resolution 242 as part of the ceasefire negotiations after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.   The Golan Heights DMZ was comparatively quiet and peaceful for much of the past four decades, but is now sustaining heavy combat at times due to the Syrian Civil War. 

Another DMZ that was created in the Middle East in 1973 was the Kuwaiti/Iraqi border zone.

 The Arab League declared it as a DMZ after the 1973 Sanita Border Skirmish.  The UN Security Council formalized this DMZ after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 but was driven out the following year.  Although the UN no longer mandates this DMZ, since the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, Kuwait still maintains an electrified concertina wire fence 15 feet wide, surrounded by a 15 foot deep trench, all along its border with Iraq.

More recently, in 2011 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared a newly activated provisional DMZ in the area around the disputed Preah Vihear temple, on the border between Cambodia and Thailand.  In 2013, the ICJ ruled that the land all around the temple belonged to Cambodia, and ordered Thailand to withdraw all of its personnel from the area.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is a DMZ?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 9, 2015, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-dmz-195307. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2015, December 9). What Is a DMZ? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-dmz-195307 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Is a DMZ?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-dmz-195307 (accessed November 22, 2017).