Taoiseach visits demilitarised zone dividing the Korean Peninsula

Leo Varadkar stepped briefly into what is technically the territory of North Korea

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has visited the demilitarised zone dividing the Korean Peninsula, stepping briefly into what is technically the territory of North Korea. Mr Varadkar’s visit to the demilitarised zone – or DMZ – took place a day before the Taoiseach meets the President of South Korea, Yoon Suk Yeol, during a high level trade mission to the country.

The Taoiseach received a detailed briefing from military officers about the security situation at the world’s most heavily fortified border. He stepped into what is technically North Korean territory when he visited one of the buildings that straddles the border, where negotiations between the two sides are conducted.

“It’s surreal, really. I’ve been to many border zones in the world, but nothing like this,” he said as he left the DMZ.

“It’s here 70 years. It’s a piece of the Cold War that still exists. On one level it’s extraordinary that the UN, the US, the Koreans set this up in such a way that peace is maintained, that an accidental conflict doesn’t start, and conflicts often happen by accident. But it’s also really sad because this is a divided peninsula, Korean people divided between two states for 70 years, and I’m really sad that that’s the case.”


Mr Varadkar is the first Taoiseach to visit the DMZ, which was established in 1953 after the armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War as a buffer zone between communist North Korea and the pro-western South Korea. It is a 4km strip of land that runs across the Korean peninsula, a distance of about 250km and although it is itself demilitarised, the area beyond the barbed wire on either side is heavily fortified and manned with armed troops.

The Taoiseach passed the Bridge of No Return, where prisoner swaps have been conducted, to the Joint Security Area (JSA) where negotiations between North and South have taken place and where US president Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in 2018. The JSA has been closed to tourists since last July when Travis King, a United States army private ran across into North Korea, where he remained until September when he was returned.

US military personnel from the United Nations Command, a multi-national force which works with South Korean forces in the DMZ, let Mr Varadkar through the JSA, describing how they still make twice-daily calls to the North Korean forces. Among the soldiers conducting the tour was Joint Duty Officer John Paul Mulligan, who said he plans to visit Ireland next year, prompting the Taoiseach to recommend a number of Mulligans pubs in Dublin.

Inside one of three long, low, blue-roofed buildings that straddle the demarcation line between the two Koreas, Mr Varadkar saw the conference table where negotiations have taken place since 1953 and heard that microphones running down the middle were live and could be heard in both North Korea and South Korea. There has been little contact between North and South since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and since Mr Yoon became president last year, South Korea has insisted that there can be no engagement until Pyongyang denuclearises.

“The global outlook is increasingly uncertain with Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East. Against this backdrop, I was keen to see at first hand the impact of one of the longest-running frozen conflicts in the world,” Mr Varadkar said.

“The situation at the demilitarised zone in Korea continues to have implications for security on the Korean Peninsula and the wider Asia Pacific region. This frozen conflict and the threat posed by a nuclearised North Korea continues to have serious consequences for millions of people. The demilitarised zone in Korea is a sobering reminder of the importance of multilateralism and peacekeeping,” Mr Varadkar said.

“This visit to the demilitarised zone comes ahead of my meeting with President Yoon, as we will discuss the importance of countries working together through international bodies like the United Nations on global issues like climate change and sustainable development. We will also discuss the global security situation, not least on the Korean Peninsula and the wider region. It is also an opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations as we celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and South Korea, as likeminded counties.”

As part of the Team Ireland Trade Mission Week, the Taoiseach has joined Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Employment Simon Coveney, the Minister for Agriculture, Food & the Marine Charlie McConalogue, and the Minister for Further & Higher Education Simon Harris, who arrived in Korea earlier in the week.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times