Joint Security Area: Film Review Essay

Joint Security Area (2000) is a South Korean film directed by Park Chan-wook. Its plot revolves around efforts to unravel the truth behind an illegal shooting at the politically and militarily sensitive North-South Korean border. By early 2001 Joint Security Area had become the highest grossing film in Korean film history.

The Korean War (1950-1953) left the two Koreas separated by the DMZ. The Korean Demilitarized Zone  is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It is 155 miles (248 km) long and approximately 2.5 miles (4 km) wide, and is the most heavily armed border in the world. Several small skirmishes have occurred within the Joint Security Area since 1953. The Axe Murder Incident in August 1976 involved the attempted trimming of a poplar tree which resulted in two deaths (CPT Arthur Bonifas and 1LT Mark Barrett) and Operation Paul Bunyan. Before this time, the soldiers of both sides were permitted to go back and forth across the MDL inside of the JSA, a privilege since revoked as a result of this incident.

Another incident occurred later when a Soviet dignitary, who was part of an official trip to the JSA (hosted by the North), ran across the MDL yelling that he wanted to defect. North Korean troops opened fire and chased him across the line. South Korean troops, protecting the defector, fired back and eventually surrounded the North Koreans. One South Korean soldier was killed in the incident. The defector expressed joy in his successful attempt but was saddened by the loss of life. Since this incident, the North Korean soldiers face one another when guarding the border so that they are keeping an eye on each other. This is to keep them from defecting. They are ordered to shoot anyone who attempts to defect before they reach the line.

 Both the North and the South remained heavily dependent on their sponsor states from 1948 to the outbreak of the Korean War. The conflict, which claimed over three million lives and divided the Korean Peninsula along ideological lines, commenced on June 25, 1950, with a Soviet-sponsored DPRK invasion across the DMZ, and ended in 1953 after international intervention pushed the front of the war back to near the 38th parallel. In the ceasefire of July 27, 1953, the DMZ was created as each side agreed in the armistice to move their troops back 2,000 meters (2,200 yd) from the front line, creating a buffer zone 2.5 miles (4 km) wide. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) goes down the centre of the DMZ and indicates exactly where the front was when the agreement was signed. Since the armistice agreement was never followed by a peace treaty, the two Koreas are still technically at war.

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Owing to this theoretical stalemate, and genuine hostility between the North and the South, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the line, each side guarding against potential aggression from the other side. The armistice agreement explains exactly how many military personnel and what kind of weapons are allowed in the DMZ. Soldiers from both sides may patrol inside the DMZ, but they may not cross the MDL. Sporadic outbreaks of violence due to North Korean hostilities killed over 500 South Korean soldiers and 50 U.S. soldiers along the DMZ between 1953 and 1999. Among the provisions of the Korean Armistice Agreement signed July 27, 1953, to bring a cease-fire in the Korean War, was establishment of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC), an agency to supervise implementation of the truce terms.

Military Police of both sides provide security for the JSA with guard forces of no more than 35 security personnel on duty at any given time. The administrative facilities for both guard forces are located within the JSA. Inside the DMZ, near the western coast of the peninsula, is a place called Panmunjeom, home of the Joint Security Area (JSA); it is the only place where North and South connect.

The DMZ draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, the vast majority from the United States and Japan, including major American political figures and celebrities (e.g., in 1989 the list of  visitors included then Vice President Dan Quayle and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders). As Roy Richard Ginker states, “Part of the DMZ’s appeal lies in its mixture of fear and the mastery of fear, like a frightening amusement park ride; one Japanese woman said, They wouldn’t bring us here if it were too dangerous, would they?”[1] Ginker further brings out people’s craze for DMZ, “the DMZ is a good source of income for the Korean government whose official travel bureau has the monopoly on the DMZ tours. We can only guess how many tourists come to Korea, and spend their money on hotels, food, and souvenirs, primarily because they want to visit the DMZ.”(2)The Joint Security Area currently has around 100,000 tourists visit each year through several tourism companies and the USO (through the various U.S. military commands in Korea). Before being allowed to enter the DMZ, if visiting from the South, tourists are given a briefing during which they must sign a document which states, in part, “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” Primarily tour companies from South Korea, Japan and the USO conduct tours from the South side. South Korean, North Korean, Chinese, and Russian citizens are not allowed access on the tours, but citizens of other nationalities are. It is also possible to visit the Joint Security Area from the North; tour companies such as Koryo Tours organize regular visits for tourists traveling in North Korea.

There are several buildings on both the north and the south side of the Military Demarcation Line, and a few which are built right on top of the MDL. According to Roy Richard Ginker, “Much of what is in the DMZ has been left untouched since the armistice in 1953; thus, in addition to expansive military bases, the visitor sees decaying buildings, roads, locomotives, and farmland.” (3)

The Joint Security Area is the location where all negotiations since 1953 have been held, including statements of Korean solidarity, which have generally amounted to little except a slight decline of tensions. The MDL goes through the conference rooms and down the middle of the conference tables where the North Koreans and the United Nations Command (primarily South Koreans and Americans) meet face to face. Roy Richard Ginker aptly remarks, “whereas the Walt Disney Company, and other creators of exhibitions and living museums, acknowledge that their museums are representations (Wines 1994), the DMZ is presented as “reality” where visitors can see the “real enemy.””(4)

The two Koreas remained technically at war through the Cold War to the present day. North Korea is often described as Stalinist and isolationist. Its economy initially enjoyed substantial growth but, unlike its neighbour the People’s Republic of China’s, collapsed in the 1990s. South Korea eventually became a capitalist liberal democracy and one of the largest economies in the world. Until recently, national security laws and anti-communist statutes in South Korea inhibited free speech (and press) about the north; South Korean governments bolstered their power by promoting a Cold War discourse that vilified the north as the enemy and thus justified a strong authoritarian state that censored the flow of information to its citizens. In part as a result of South Korean government propaganda, the Korean language literature on national division was influenced by the anti-communist notion that the state is the sole independent [2]variable in determining north Korean history. According to Roy Richard Ginker,“In South Korea, any suggestion that it is the “people” of north Korea who create differences between north and south might be considered an anti-national act because it legitimates the north as a distinct and separate country.”(5) Since the 1990s, with progressively liberal South Korean administrations, as well as the death of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, the two sides have taken small, symbolic steps towards a possible Korean reunification

Based on the Park Sang-yeon  novel “DMZ”, “Joint Security Area” centers on a modern-day cross-border incident in this flashpoint of North-South tensions, specifically at the ‘Bridge of No Return’, where prisoners-of-war were exchanged at the end of the Korean War.  The film depicts such hostile relations between the two countries. It begins when two North Korean soldiers are killed in the DMZ at a North Korean border house. Alarms sound on both sides, and North and South Korean soldiers are quickly deployed at the scene, resulting in an exchange of gunfire. Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byung-Hun[3]) despite an injured leg runs from the North Korean side and attempts to reach the South Korean side. He is shortly rescued while the gunfire continues.

Two days later, the fragile relationship between the two Koreas now relies on a special investigation conducted by Swedish and Swiss investigators from the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission to ensure that this incident does not erupt into a serious conflict. The mission is led by Major Sophie (Lee Young Ae), her mother being from Switzerland and her father Korean; however, this is her first time in Korea.

Swiss military officer Major Sophie  Jang (Lee Yeong-ae, who appeared most recently in “One Fine Spring Day”, arrives in Panmumjeom to conduct an impartial investigation of the incident, which has resulted in two deaths. Not surprisingly, both sides remain tight-lipped about the details of the incident, and treat her investigation with suspicion.

Based on the depositions filed by each side, two possible scenarios arise, which are told in “Rashomon”-style. According to the South, South Korean Sgt. Lee Soo-hyeok (Lee Byeong-heon of “Bungee Jumping of Their Own”) was abducted by North Korean soldiers and dragged across the Bridge of No Return. During his escape, Lee killed two soldiers and wounded another. This runs counter to the account given by the wounded North Korean officer, Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil (Song Kang-ho of “Shiri”), who states that Lee deliberately crossed the bridge and started a shooting spree.

As Jang’s investigation develops, she uncovers evidence suggesting that neither account is correct, such as how the number of bullets recovered at the crime scene are inconsistent with the number fired by Lee. With the use of extended flashbacks, the truth about the incident, as well as the unlikely connection between sergeants Lee and Oh, gradually comes to light, revealing a tragedy borne of a divided country.

One of the most striking aspects of “Joint Security Area” is its sumptuous cinematography, as it is the first Korea film to use the Super-35 format. This is most apparent in the flashback scenes, where director Park Chan-wook and cinematographer Kim Sung-bok (who also lensed “Shiri”) have crafted a number of memorable scenes that drip in atmosphere, tension, and surprisingly, warmth, such as a night-time run-in between Lee and Oh amidst a field of billowing ferns and tall grass, or the well-staged firefight that ensues around Lee’s escape. And though the story jumps back and forth between the present and the past, Park’s poised direction and technical prowess ensures that the transitions are not only eye-catching, but also easily understood.

Though “Joint Security Area” may lack the firepower unleashed in “Shiri”, it more than makes up for it with its compelling and emotionally resonant script. Like “Shiri”, “Joint Security Area” offers complex North Korean characters, and a tragic tale about a friendship doomed by the entrenched political distrust and fear that have divided Korea for almost fifty years. When story finally comes full circle, revealing the truth about the shootings and the damage that it has wrought, the epiphany is devastating, which is best summed up in the poignant closing shot, a fleeting moment of friendship along the 38th parallel, forever frozen in time.

If there is one scene which encapsulates the film, it is when a North Korean and a South Korean patrol meet in a snowy wilderness. The border divides them clearly, as seen in the background. A face off ensues, with the North Koreans pointing their guns towards the South, and the South Koreans pointing their guns towards the North.

If there is a fault to be picked on, it would have to be the clumsy scenes conducted in English between Jang and her Swiss cohorts. Lee Yeong-ae’s difficulties with the English language are readily apparent, which is both distracting and unintelligibly confusing (especially when she utters key expository dialogue). Likewise, the Swiss characters are occasionally difficult to understand with their thick accents and somewhat stilted line delivery. Thankfully,  the Korean performances, including Lee’s (who also has the distinction of playing a female character that is not a love interest in a Korean film), are much stronger. Lee Byeong-heon is convincing as a man torn by the truth, as is Kim Tae-woo, who plays his quiet but loyal sidekick. Shin Ha-kyun’s (“Guns & Talks”) turn as a North Korean soldier is also affecting, as the comic relief trappings of his character eventually give way as he becomes the epicentre of the tragedy. However, the standout performance would have to go to Song Kang-ho, who demonstrates his considerable dramatic range as a North Korean soldier whose sense of duty and honor transcends borders.

The film has won many International awards: Best film and best director, Blue Dragon Film Awards 2000,Best Actor (won jointly by Lee Byeong-heon and Song Kang-ho) at the Pusan Film Critics Awards 2000,Jury Prize, Audience Prize and Best Actor (Song Kang-ho) at Deauville Asian Film Festival 2001,Nominated for best Asian film at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2002,Best Film Grand Bell Awards 2001,Runner up, Golden Space Needle Audience Award for Best Film, and Special Jury Prize at the 27th Seattle International Film Festival 2001,Nominated, Berlin International Film Festival, 2001.

In this day and age, when we are constantly being told that we are threatened by a faceless enemy (JSA was made before 9/11), the film offers us an alternative to bombastic threats and a “kill them all” mentality. It is a war film for people who love peace.



Joint Security Area (film),


Korean Demilitarized Zone,

Joint Security Area Review, Movie Review by Anthony Leong,

Roy Richard Grinker, The “Real Enemy” of the Nation: Exhibiting North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone1

[1] 1Roy Richard Ginker, The “Real Enemy” of the Nation: Exhibiting

North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone1

2 Ginker, The Real Enemy

3 Ginker, The Real Enemy

4 Ginker, The Real Enemy

5 Ginker, The Real Enemy