Demilitarized Zone

Have you ever been in a fight with a sibling or a friend? Maybe your parent or teacher pulled the two of you apart and told you to go to your own rooms, switch desks, or stand in a corner for a few minutes. Sometimes, we need that buffer or space to calm down and stop the fighting. 

Demilitarized Zone Demilitarized Zone

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    Demilitarized zones are essentially scaled-up versions of the same concept, but the stakes are much, much higher, since they are usually enacted to prevent or stop a war. Using the Korean Demilitarized Zone as a case study, we'll take a look at what demilitarized zones are, how they are formed, and what unintended benefits they might have for wildlife.

    Demilitarized Zone Definition

    Demilitarized zones (DMZs) usually emerge as a result of a military conflict. More often than not, DMZs are created through a treaty or armistice. They help create a buffer zone between two or more adversarial nations. All sides in a conflict agree that no military activity can take place within the DMZ. Sometimes, all other types of human administration or activity are limited or forbidden as well. Many DMZs are truly neutral territory.

    A demilitarized zone is an area where military activity is officially forbidden.

    DMZs often serve as political boundaries or political borders. These DMZs create a mutual assurance that violating the DMZ agreement is a likely invitation to further warfare.

    Demilitarized Zones, Korean Wall, StudySmarterFig. 1 - DMZs can act as political boundaries and may be enforced with walls

    However, DMZs do not always have to be political borders. Entire islands and even some contested cultural landmarks (like the Preah Vihear Temple in Cambodia) can also act as officially-designated DMZs. DMZs can also preemptively deter a conflict before any fighting actually begins; the entirety of outer space, for example, is a DMZ as well.

    The function of DMZs is to prevent military conflict. Think for a moment: What function do other types of political boundaries serve, and what cultural processes create them? Understanding political boundaries will help you prepare for the AP Human Geography exam!

    Demilitarized Zone Example

    There are about a dozen active DMZs around the world. The entire continent of Antarctica is a DMZ, although military missions may be conducted for scientific purposes.

    However, perhaps the most famous demilitarized zone in the world is the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which emerged as a result of the Korean War in the early 1950s.

    The Partition of Korea

    In 1910, Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan. Following Japan's defeat in World War II, the Allied powers decided to guide Korea toward independence. To help facilitate this transition, the Soviet Union took responsibility for northern Korea, while the United States took responsibility for southern Korea.

    But there was one big problem with this arrangement. Though united against the Axis powers during the war, the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist United States were diametrically opposed ideologically. Almost immediately after the war ended, these two superpowers became bitter economic, military, and political rivals in a forty-five-year feud called the Cold War.

    In September 1945, not long after the Soviets and Americans had arrived on the Korean peninsula and established their military protectorates, politician Lyuh Woon-hyung attempted to establish a national government called the People's Republic of Korea (PRK). He declared it to be the one, true government of Korea. The PRK was neither explicitly communist nor capitalist but rather was primarily concerned with Korean independence and self-governance. In the south, the United States banned the PRK and all affiliated committees and movements. In the north, however, the Soviet Union co-opted the PRK and used it to consolidate and centralize power.

    Demilitarized Zones, Map of Korea, StudySmarterFig. 2 - North Korea and South Korea as seen today

    By 1948, there were no longer simply two different military administrations. Rather, there were two competing governments: the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south. Today, these countries are commonly referred to as North Korea and South Korea, respectively.

    The Korean War

    After years of vassalage, colonization, and foreign conquest, many Koreans were not at all happy about the fact that there were two Koreas. Why, after all this time, were the Korean people divided between north and south? But the ideological gaps that had grown between the two Koreas were too great to breach. North Korea had modeled itself after the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China and had embraced a form of Marxist-Leninist communism. South Korea had modeled itself after the United States and had adopted capitalism and constitutional republicanism.

    North Korea maintains a unique ideology called Juche. Juche is, in many respects, very similar to traditional communist ideologies. However, Juche posits that people must always have a pre-eminent, autocratic "great leader" to guide them, whereas most communists only see autocracy as a temporary means to a later end goal of perfect equality between all people. Since 1948, North Korea has been ruled by members of the Kim family.

    By 1949, it seemed as if the only way to unite Korea was through war. Several communist insurgencies sprang up and were crushed in South Korea. Intermittent fighting occurred along the border. Finally, in 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, rapidly conquering the vast majority of the peninsula. A coalition, led by the United States, ultimately pushed the North Korean military back across 38°N latitude (the 38th parallel). An estimated 3 million people died during the Korean War.

    Korean Demilitarized Zone

    In 1953, North Korea and South Korea signed the Korean Armistice Agreement, which ended the fighting. Part of the armistice included the creation of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which runs across the border between the two countries roughly in line with the 38th parallel and creates a hedge between the two nations. The Korean DMZ is 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, and there is a Joint Security Area in the DMZ where diplomats from each country can meet.

    North Korea and South Korea have never signed a formal peace treaty. Both countries still claim full ownership of the entire Korean peninsula.

    Demilitarized Zone Map

    Take a look at the map below.

    Demilitarized Zone, Korean DMZ, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Korean DMZ separates north from south

    The DMZ—and specifically the military demarcation line in the center of it—acts as the de facto political border between North Korea and South Korea. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is around 30 miles south of the DMZ. By contrast, Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is over 112 miles north of the DMZ.

    Four tunnels passing underneath the DMZ were constructed by North Korea. The tunnels were discovered by South Korea throughout the 1970s and 1990s. They are sometimes called the Incursion Tunnels or Infiltration Tunnels. North Korea has claimed they were coal mines, but after no trace of coal was found, South Korea concluded they were meant to be secret invasion routes.

    Demilitarized Zone Wildlife

    Because of its critical role in Korean history and modern international politics, the Korean DMZ has actually become something of a tourist attraction. In South Korea, tourists can visit the DMZ in a special area called the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ).

    Some of those CCZ visitors are actually wildlife biologists and ecologists. That's because the overall lack of human interference has caused the DMZ to become an inadvertent nature preserve. Over 5,000 species of plants and animals have been seen in the DMZ, including several extremely rare species such as the Amur leopard, Asiatic black bear, Siberian tiger, and Japanese crane.

    Without human interference, natural ecosystems overtake DMZs. As a result, many other DMZs have also become nature preserves. For example, the DMZ in Cyprus (commonly called the Green Line) is home to a near-threatened species of wild sheep called the mouflon as well as several species of rare flowers. The entirety of Argentina's Martín García Island is a DMZ and has been explicitly designated as a wildlife sanctuary.

    Demilitarized Zones - Key takeaways

    • A demilitarized zone is an area where military activity is officially forbidden.
    • Demilitarized zones often act as de facto political boundaries between two nations.
    • The most renowned DMZ in the world is the Korean DMZ, which was created as a result of the Korean War to establish a buffer between North Korea and South Korea.
    • Because of the lack of human activity, DMZs can often become inadvertent boons for wildlife.


    1. Fig. 2: Map of Korea with English Labels ( by Johannes Barre (, modified by Patrick Mannion, Licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
    2. Fig. 3: Korea DMZ ( by Tatiraju Rishabh (, Licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Demilitarized Zone

    What is a demilitarized zone?  

    A demilitarized zone is an area where military activity is officially forbidden. 

    What is the purpose of a demilitarized zone? 

    A demilitarized zone is meant to prevent or stop warfare. Often, DMZs are a buffer zone between adversarial nations. 

    What is the Korean demilitarized zone?  

    The Korean Demilitarized Zone is the de facto political border between North Korea and South Korea. It was created via the Korean Armistice Agreement and was intended to create a military buffer between the two nations. 

    Where is the demilitarized zone in Korea? 

    The Korean DMZ chops the Korean peninsula roughly in half. It runs approximately along 38°N latitude (the 38th parallel).

    Why is there a demilitarized zone in Korea? 

    The Korean DMZ creates a buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea. It is a deterrence to further military invasion or warfare.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Following World War II, the military administration of the Korean Peninsula was managed by which two countries?

    Which Korean politician attempted to establish the People's Republic of Korea?

    By what year were there functionally two separate Korean nations? 

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