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Can North and South Koreans understand each other? Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area

CONTINUED FROM Why is Korea divided? History of Korean War, Who are the “Kim Dynasty” of North Korea? Why do Korean males, including K-pop idols, have to go to the military? Did you know that Korea is still at war? Korea after division – Who’s doing better?


The Demilitarized Zone in Korea
The Demilitarized Zone in Korea
Work by Rishabh Tatiraju licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

What is the scariest place you can think of? A haunted house? That’s cute. According to Bill Clinton, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the scariest place on earth. The DMZ is a 4 km-long (up 2 km north and down 2 km south from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) neutral zone created as a result of the armistice agreement in 1953 and is the most heavily-guarded border on Earth.

While military activities of any type are strictly prohibited here, this is where one of the Earth’s most intense confrontations is taking place, even at this very moment. The descendants of the sworn enemies – North Korean soldiers, South Korean soldiers, and the United Nations forces, are watching each other around the clock, separated by a massive minefield and barbed wire fences. The tension and stress are so enormous that a single mistake could easily trigger a shootout and lead to a full-blown war. Anyone standing here would agree with what Bill Clinton said.


Called the “Military Armistice Commission Joint Security Area (JSA),” or “판문점 Panmunjom,” it’s an area located along the Military Demarcation Line in the Demilitarized Zone. It was set up at the headquarters of the Military Armistice Commission in October 1953 to facilitate the smooth operation of the meeting by the U.N. Forces, the Chinese People’s Assistance Force, and the North Korean military during the cease-fire. And this is where the armistice agreement was signed (the original location at that time is a little different from now because it was located slightly above the MDL). 

Three ROK soldiers watching the border at Panmunjeom in the DMZ between North and South Korea.
Three ROK soldiers watching the border at Panmunjeom in the DMZ between North and South Korea.
Image by Henrik Ishihara licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0
DMZ viewed from the North
DMZ viewed from the North
Image by David Eerdmans licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Inside the Joint Security Area, there are about 10 buildings, including the main hall of the Military Armistice Commission, the Panmungak 판문각 on the North Korean side, and the Jayueuijip 자유의집 (“House of Freedom”), on the U.N. side. Initially, the area was jointly guarded by the U.N. and North Korean forces (North Korean military guard posts were set up in the South Korean security area, while the U.N. guard posts were set up in the North’s security area). In 1976, after an ax-murder incident by the North Korean military, the North areas are guarded by the North’s military and the UN areas guarded by the U.N. forces. The 2019 Inter-Korean Summit was also held at the House of Freedom. The JSA is probably the most symbolic place of Korea’s division where Koreans are put in different military uniforms due to ideological differences and point a gun at each other. It’s possible to visit the JSA through a group tour, but for those who can’t, I highly recommend watching this amazing movie titled Gongdong Gyeongbi Guyeok JSA 공동경비구역 (Joint Security Area, 2000) as an alternative.

Gongdong Gyeongbi Guyeok JSA 공동경비구역 (Joint Security Area, 2000)

Gongdong Gyeongbi Guyeok JSA 공동경비구역 (Joint Security Area, 2000)
JSA – Joint Security Area Official Trailer


Yes and no. Basically, both South and North Korea speak Korean with minor differences. Because they have identical grammar rules, including word order and sentence composition, they are not considered two different languages, but instead different types of Korean dialects from each other’s point of view, with differences in intonation, pronunciation, but above all, the use of words. For example, the South Korean language actively accepts foreign words and uses them as they are, while the North Korean language uses foreign words in “pure Korean.” Of course, many of the same Korean words also use different terms. The difference further diverges when using professional lingo, and communication can become difficult as if they were speaking two different languages. In sum, South Koreans and North Koreans can communicate, but it can get difficult from time to time.

South KoreaNorth Korea
Tunnel터널 Tunnel차굴 chagul “Car Tunnel”
Front Light헤드라이트 Headlight앞등 apdeung “Front Light”
Mother-in-Law시어머니 shieomeoni아고 ago

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