Korean DMZ: A Rare Look Inside the ‘Scariest Place on Earth’
The Korean Demilitarized Zone was established in 1953 as part of the armistice agreement that ended three years of brutal fighting between North and South Korea. Stretching across the 155-mile width of the Korean peninsula, the approximately two-mile-wide swath of land is bounded on both sides by several lines of barbed wire fence and one of the largest concentration of soldiers and artillery in the world. President Bill Clinton once called it the “scariest place on earth.”
In 2009, to mark the upcoming 60th anniversary of the outbreak of war, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense granted photojournalist Park Jongwoo rare access to the DMZ. Because of the thousands of landmines that litter the DMZ, Jongwoo was accompanied at all times by a squadron of South Korean soldiers, who follow established patrol routes. He continued photographing the DMZ for the next eight years; a book of the work was published in November.
“I thought inside the DMZ would be this fully armed area with artillery and machine guns and missiles,” Jongwoo said. “But when I first went in, it just looked like a really peaceful area. Except for the guard posts, it looks like just a normal Korean landscape.”
Because the zone is off-limits to human development, it has become something of a wildlife refuge for endangered birds like the red-crowned crane and the white-naped crane. More than 6,000 animal and plant species have been identified in the area, according to the South Korean Ministry of Environment, including 106 labeled endangered or protected. While shooting in the DMZ, Jongwoo saw wild boar, water deer, and goat-like long-tailed gorals.
Thanks to the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang—just 40 miles south of the DMZ—there’s been a recent thaw in inter-Korean relations, with negotiators meeting for the first time since 2015 and the reopening of a hotline between the two nations. But Jongwoo expressed skepticism about the prospect for reunification, at least within his lifetime.
“There are so many obstacles to peace talks, so most people are still worried about that,” he said. “But for this moment, for the Olympics, we’re happy.”