Brief History: Korean Border Clashes

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Martin Sasse / laif

North Korean border guards outside the barracks in the Joint Security Area of the Central Demarcation Line of the DMZ.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula flared after North Korean artillery bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on Nov. 23, killing four people. Since then, the specter of war has loomed large, with bellicose rhetoric coming from both sides of the 38th parallel and Washington dispatching an aircraft carrier to Korean waters.

Of course, conflict over the disputed border--the last patch of earth still frozen in the Cold War--is nothing new. While the Korean War concluded with an armistice in 1953, hostilities never formally ceased. For decades, exchanges of fire and reports of territorial incursions have been an annual--if not monthly--occurrence. Initially, North Korea imagined it could foment socialist revolution in the South through daring guerrilla acts. In January 1968, 31 North Korean commandos garbed in South Korean uniforms sneaked across the border to Seoul on a mission to assassinate (more specifically, behead) President Park Chung Hee before they were spotted and gunned down steps from his residence. Days later, the U.S.S. Pueblo, a surveillance vessel, was hijacked in waters claimed by North Korea, and its 82 surviving crew members were kept in captivity for 11 months. To this day, the ship, a popular North Korean tourist attraction, remains docked in Pyongyang.

The North Koreans also tried their luck underground--digging tunnels beneath the demilitarized zone with the aim of conveying whole columns of soldiers stealthily into the South. The last known Tunnel of Aggression was detected and blocked in 1978, though rumors still swirl about undiscovered networks. In more recent times, as the South has raced ahead of its famine-stricken, impoverished neighbor, Pyongyang has given up the ghost of a communist takeover. But, as the attacks this year prove, Kim Jong Il's rogue state is still spoiling for a fight.