When Is a Border Just a Border? Almost Never
Countries rise and fall over borders — and how they are guarded. Wars are fought, lives upended. Then again, sometimes it’s more a matter of trash not being collected in national parks, and politicians issuing dueling news releases.
The federal government shutdown sparked by President Trump’s demand for funding a wall on the Mexican border is nearing the three-week mark, and offers a reminder that borders are not just lines of demarcation: Often, they are potent symbols of the politics playing out around them.
A look at some of the most-guarded borders in the world, and some that are notably less so.
North Korea and South Korea
Many know it simply by its latitude: the 38th Parallel.
The border between North Korea and South Korea has been one of the most contentious in the world for decades.
The Korean War halted in 1953 with an armistice — but a formal peace treaty was never signed. As part of the armistice, the American-led United Nations Command and the Communist generals of North Korea and China agreed to create a two-and-a-half-mile-wide buffer zone that divides the Korean Peninsula to keep the warring armies apart.
Known as the DMZ, the buffer zone was supposed to be “demilitarized,” but soon became a heavily fortified frontier riddled with land mines and surrounded by fences and guard posts.
Then last year, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, took a symbolic step. Hand in hand, they crossed over the demarcation line, signifying what many hoped was the start of a new era.
The two leaders’ summit meeting itself offered little in the way of a concrete plan for peace, but the theater of the crossing resonated globally. Still, while a formal peace agreement may finally be in sight, the border remains heavily fortified.
Israel and the West Bank
Israel’s boundary with the occupied West Bank was once a largely invisible one.
But Israel began building a physical barrier in 2002, at the height of a Palestinian suicide bombing campaign. Mostly departing from the pre-1967 armistice line, the barrier became increasingly political as its architects looped it around settlements and areas that Israel wished to keep under any future peace deal. (Palestinians want the territory, along with Gaza, for a future independent state.)
In 2004, a nonbinding ruling from the International Court of Justice said construction of Israel’s wall across the line should be dismantled. Palestinians have dismissed Israel’s security arguments, saying the barrier is a “racist separation” or “apartheid” wall.
Thousands of Palestinian workers apply for permits and enter Israel every day. Thousands more sneak across without authorization, but they are generally accepted as part of the local economy.
Hungary and Serbia
In 2015, Europe grappled with an migration, unprecedented in modern history, of people from the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Many of the people arriving at its doorstep were seeking asylum, and they received an uneven welcome on the Continent. Some nations offered a haven. Others sealed their borders.
In some places, like Hungary, the call for a border wall became a rally cry of a rising populist movement.
Hungary fortified a border fence along its southern border with Serbia to keep out migrants and asylum seekers. The flow of people into the country came to a near halt — and the far right reaped political rewards.
Many migrants never had any intention of settling in Hungary; it was simply a way station. Their real goal was reaching more prosperous European nations, and so some simply found different routes.
Britain and Ireland
The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was heavily militarized for decades as a partisan conflict over British control over the North.
But in the years since the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement was signed, the border virtually disappeared. For decades, both Britain and Ireland have been members of the European Union and its common marketplace, allowing for the free movement of people and goods between the two nations.
In many places, towns straddle the border and country roads weave back and forth from the Republic to the North, with the only indication of an international border crossing being speed-limit signs changing from kilometers to miles.
But with Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, the border that stretches across the island of Ireland is set to become the only land border between Europe and Britain.
No one wants a return to the old days, but the largely invisible boundary has once again become a point of contention, with the ability to maintain a soft border a sticking point in British negotiations to withdraw from the bloc.
Morocco and Spain
A small stretch of Europe’s southern border actually touches Morocco, making the tiny territory accessible by land rather than by sea. Increasingly, it has become a place where migrants attempt to enter Europe, as other routes have become more perilous.
The Spanish enclave is known as Ceuta, and visitors there can’t fail to note a 20-foot-high barbed wire fence that stretches for four miles. The area is also patrolled by some 1,100 Spanish federal police officers and the Guardia Civil, a paramilitary police force.
Eritrea and Ethiopia
A brutal war over their border left Ethiopia and Eritrea in a two-decade-long standoff, often described as a “state of war.” The two nations cut economic, trade and diplomatic ties, and sealed the border, heavily militarizing it.
But in September, the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea reopened crossing points on the border. The move cleared the way for trade to resume between the nations, and the countries’ leaders signed a formal declaration of peace.
The reopening coincided with the Ethiopian New Year, adding to the festive atmosphere as families that had been separated for years flooded across.
Canada and the United States
The number of illegal border crossings into the United States are on the rise — from Canada.
You might not know it from the rhetoric focused America’s southern border, but border protection agents at the north are plenty busy. Much of the 5,525-mile border is open, and in some places towns — or even individual buildings — straddle both sides.
On the border between Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vt., there is a paucity of tire spikes and imposing fences.
There is, however, a row of flower pots marking the dividing line between the nations outside the Haskell Free Library, which serves both countries. In recent months, the library has even become a place for Iranian families separated by President Trump’s travel ban to have brief reunions.
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting.