Visiting the DMZ Between North Korea & South Korea
I have to admit that history was not one of my strong subjects. Most of my paltry knowledge of world history and politics comes from Hollywood movies, which means it’s very limited at best, and potentially skewed.
All I knew about North Korea was the fact that it’s one of the most closed countries on Earth. But it has been gaining more attention from the outside world, especially since the video of the meeting between North and South Korean leaders went viral.
Apparently, there’s a place in the boundary of the two countries, where this sort of meetings take place, and it’s open to visitors — even foreign tourists! It’s called the DMZ.
Table of Contents
What is the DMZ?
DMZ stands for Demilitarized Zone, which refers to an area between two nations or military powers, in which military activities are forbidden. Many demilitarized zones around the world are considered neutral territory because neither side is allowed to control it.
About the Korean DMZ
The Korean DMZ is a four-kilometre-wide belt that runs for 240 kilometres (150 miles) across the Korean Peninsula, separating North and South Korea. The cease-fire line was established in 1953 at the end of the Korean War and was part of the Armistice Agreement between United Nations, North Korea, and China.
After the war, the Chinese and North Koreans retreated 2 kilometres to the north while the UN forces 2 kilometres south, creating a “No Man’s Land” in the middle.
Although there are tanks and heavy artillery behind the barbed wire fences on both the Northern and Southern sides, there are none within the DMZ itself, as agreed in the treaty.
In the middle of the 4-km belt, there is the Military Demarcation Line, and on it sits a “truce village” called Panmunjeom. That is the Joint Security Area (JSA) where negotiations between both sides take place.
If you take a full-day DMZ tour, you will visit the JSA and enter the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room, which is the only place where anyone could safely and freely cross the Demarcation Line.
How to Get to the Korean DMZ
You can get to the DMZ from either side of Korea.
Obviously, choosing to go from North Korea is a lot more complicated because you can only visit the country with a registered and state-approved tour operator. And that’s only if you’re not from countries currently prohibited from visiting North Korea.
However, if you have the means to do so, you should really try to experience visiting the DMZ from both sides of Korea. Despite taking place in the exact same space, they are said to be vastly different from one another.
Like most other visitors, I went to the DMZ from Seoul, South Korea. You can book a tour through your hotel or online.
There are many different tours to choose from, and you should pick one based on your budget, time, and the points of interest included in the itinerary. The best thing about booking a tour online is that you get to read previous customers’ reviews.
Check out these tours on Klook:
Can You Visit the Korean DMZ without a Tour?
No, the DMZ has restricted civilian access. All visitors are required to have a military escort to enter the site. Therefore, you can only visit the DMZ with an organized tour from an approved travel agency.
Is Visiting the Korean DMZ Dangerous?
No, although the DMZ in Korea is still considered an active war zone and is often described as “the scariest place on earth” or “the world’s most dangerous border”, there is no threat to civilians or visitors.
Throughout the tour, your group will be accompanied by at least two military escorts, so as long as you strictly follow the rules, the No Man’s Land should be a safe place to visit.
However, it is worth noting that DMZ tours can be cancelled or ended unexpectedly should there be any military events or tensions at the border.
What to Expect on a DMZ Tour
After hotel pickup in Seoul, our tour started with the drive to our first stop: Imjingak Park. On the bus, our guide — a tall and well-built man, dressed smartly in full army uniforms with polished boots and dark sunglasses — introduced himself.
According to him, he was part of the National Intelligence Service and one of his monthly tasks was to escort tour groups and enlighten them on the current situation between South and North Korea.
Our group was lucky because that day happened to be the one day of the month that he led the tour. On other days, I suppose it would have been some lower-ranked military personnel, not the top brass. However, we were not to take any photo or video of him, lest his identity be compromised.
I’m not sure how much of this was true, or if he was just pulling our legs all along. But he certainly looked the part and it did trigger a murmur of excitement in our group. We felt as though we were part of a top-secret mission.
Imjingak Park is the furthest north that South Korean civilians are permitted to go. In 1972 after the South-North Armistice, the park was established in the hope of a reunification (although that has yet to come).
Instead of a somber mood you might expect in such a place, Imjingak Park actually exudes a hopeful and optimistic vibe. Attached to the barbed-wire border fence are thousands of prayer ribbons, each carrying a message of hope, dreams, and wishes.
The park has become an attraction for those who’d like to learn more about Korea’s past and is especially popular because it does not require any security check to get to.
At the park, you will see historical artifacts and war memorabilia including an old steam locomotive. The bullet-riddled train was derailed by bombs in the Korean War and is now exhibited in the park to serve as a reminder of the tragedy.
Regrettably, we were ignorant of this fact during our visit, so we happily took photos in front of what we assumed was just an old train, without knowing its significance.
Bridge of Freedom
Also within the Imjingak Park is the Bridge of Freedom, across which 12,773 South Korean war prisoners crossed to return from the North near the end of the Korean War in 1953.
At the front of the bridge stands the Mangbaedan Memorial Altar, where displaced North Koreans pay respect to their beloved family members back home, whom they have not been able to see since the demarcation decades ago. Twice a year — on New Year’s Day and Mid-Autumn Festival — they would come to the altar to perform ancestral rites.
Like the rest of Imjingak Park, the Bridge of Freedom carries both a reminder of a devastating past as well as a hope for a better future.
The Third Tunnel
Our next destination was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel (also known as The Third Tunnel of Aggression), which is one of the four known subterranean passages in the DMZ area.
The Third Tunnel was dug by the North Korean army in the attempt to infiltrate Seoul, but was discovered by the South Koreans in the late 1970s. It has since been turned into a tourist attraction, albeit under constant military surveillance.
The tunnel is about 1.6 kilometres in length, nearly 2 metres in height, and 2.1 metres in width. With a depth of 73 metres below the ground (approximately equivalent to a 25-story underground building), it can accommodate about 30,000 soldiers at a time.
Wearing a safety helmet, you will walk down a portion of the tunnel and back (about 250 metres each way). The walk was more tiring than I expected. Some parts were very steep while some others required us to crouch down a little. And with all the participants crammed in the tunnel, it felt somewhat stuffy and claustrophobic.
If you have back problems or fear of confined spaces, you might want to sit this one out. It’s also not suitable for pregnant travelers or those with serious medical conditions.
I’d highly recommend wearing comfortable shoes and bringing a bottle of water with you for this part of the tour.
DMZ Theater & Exhibition Hall
After coming out of the tunnel, you will have some time to explore the DMZ Exhibition Hall, which is located within the DMZ Museum area.
The Exhibition Hall displays an array of old weapons and other artifacts that will give you a glimpse into the daily life during the Korean War. These include soldiers’ personal belongings, clothes, and household items.
At the Theater Hall, you will watch a 15-minute 3D short film documenting Korea’s history and the aftermath of warfare. Besides the explanations given to us by our guide, this documentary really helped us make sense of what we had seen and were about to see on the tour.
Next, we headed to the Dora Observatory to get a view of North Korea. Situated on Dora-san (Mount Dora), the observatory is the northernmost point of the Military Demarcation Line and offers a rare glimpse of North Korea through high-powered telescopes.
Since being opened to the public in January 1987, Dora Observatory has become one of the most popular attractions in the DMZ as it allows visitors to peek into what is possibly the most mysterious country on Earth.
When the DMZ was formed, both nations were required to evacuate their side of the DMZ of all civilian settlements, except one that each nation was allowed to keep. Basically, these villages’ sole purpose is to show off to the other side how superior life on their side is. Thus, they are widely known as “propaganda villages”.
For a small fee, you can use the telescopes to look at North Korea’s propaganda village called Kijong-dong. If you’ve got sharp eyes, you may be able to find the Kim Il-sung Statue and the 160-metre-tall flagpole (the fourth tallest in the world).
I didn’t see any of these landmarks, but I did spot a few North Koreans going about (or pretending to go about) their daily lives.
After the observatory, you will continue to Dorasan Station, the last train station before the border with North Korea. Here, you can get a souvenir stamp that mimics an immigration stamp (but you will not be entering North Korea).
This station was initially constructed with the intention of connecting South Korea’s railway system to North Korea and hopefully the rest of Asia. However, it did not come to fruition as the tension between the two countries continued to rise.
The railway track from South Korea to the North has never been in use, and the station is almost empty save for tour groups and the people who work there. Nonetheless, Dorasan Station will remain optimistically standing, to symbolize the people’s hope for eventual reunification.
Joint Security Area (JSA)
If you take the full-day tour, you will get to visit the Joint Security Area (JSA), which according to many people, is the ultimate highlight of the tour.
Also known as the “Truce Village” or Panmunjom, it is the exact place where peace negotiations were carried out between two Korean leaders and top aides in 1951, which eventually led to the Armistice Agreement.
Since then, it has been the site for numerous diplomatic engagements between the two nations.
In 2018, both North and South Korea agreed to clear the JSA of all landmines, weapons, and guard posts. Now, it only has 35 unarmed security guards at any one time and will serve mainly as a tourist attraction.
What makes the JSA attractive to visitors is that it’s the only place in South Korea where you can safely see North Korean soldiers up close. You can even legally step into North Korea!
In the middle of the blue building (as pictured above) is the North/South Korean border. So if you step past the line, you are technically in North Korea. However, be warned that if you cross through the door to the other side, no one will be responsible for your safety.
Visiting DMZ without JSA
Although the JSA is the highlight of the tour for most people, sometimes you might just have to skip it due to time or budget constraints, or because it’s fully booked (you have to book it a few days or sometimes weeks in advance, especially in the peak season).
We chose to skip the JSA for our half-day tour, because to be honest, we didn’t do much research before booking the tour and had no idea what the JSA was. So, after Dorasan Station, we made our back to Seoul, stopping at the Korean Ginseng Center before being dropped off at Seoul City Hall.
Dress Code for DMZ Tour
This is an important thing to know because the JSA imposes a very strict dress code on all its visitors. You may not be granted entry if you fail to comply.
Here are the types of clothes that are not allowed in the JSA:
- Sleeveless or midriff-baring tops
- Round-neck T-shirts
- Leather clothes
- Clothes with provocative or profane texts
- Revealing clothes, including mini skirts and shorts
- Military prints
- Sandals, slippers, or open-toed shoes
- Faded, ripped, or torn jeans
- Over-sized clothes
- Unkempt hair
Basically, you have to look smart and tidy. If you’re not sure about a particular outfit, do check with your tour operator beforehand.
We were told that North Korean soldiers periodically take photos of visitors and use them as a false propaganda to convince their citizens that other countries are too poor to afford decent clothing.
Additional Info on the DMZ Tour
- You’re required to have a valid passport with you on the tour. It will be checked by army personnel on arrival at the JSA and some other checkpoints.
- You are not permitted to visit the DMZ on your own, and some nationalities may be required to have a background check from the United Nations. So, do verify with your tour operator before you go.
- You have to sign a waiver agreeing not to hold anyone responsible for any accident, injury, or death during the tour.
- Especially now with social distancing and new SOPs in place, many tours may require advance booking, so make sure you book early.
- Children under 10 are not allowed to enter the JSA. In all other areas, children must be accompanied by an adult.
- This tour is not suitable for pregnant travelers or people with heart or back problems, claustrophobia, or any serious medical conditions. Participants should have a moderate physical fitness level.
- Wear sturdy shoes if you plan to walk down the tunnel, as it can be very steep at some parts.
- Cameras with zooming lens are not allowed. There may also be some areas where you won’t be allowed to take pictures at all.
- In the unlikely event of tensions at the border, the tour may have to be cancelled or ended abruptly.
Final Thoughts on Visiting the DMZ
Should you visit the DMZ on your trip to Seoul?
Dark tourism — or visiting a place that is historically associated with tragedy — is a highly controversial thing. On one hand, it provides a great opportunity for visitors to learn more about the history and current affairs of the place. On the other, it may seem as though human suffering is being exploited for the sake of tourism.
The DMZ is after all big business in South Korea. And this may have caused some people to forget the real meaning of the DMZ or the story behind it. The observatory, for example, gave off an almost zoo-like vibe, where we gained voyeuristic pleasure in invading the privacy of North Korean citizens.
With a lack of background knowledge to begin with, I unfortunately failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation. Admittedly, I was more interested in getting a glimpse of North Korea than to actually learn about the history.
Much of the realization came to me in hindsight, and mostly when I read up more on the subject in the process of writing this article.
So, if you do plan to go on a DMZ tour, I hope you will be better prepared and more respectful than I was. Remember why the DMZ exists, the people who have died in the war, and the families that are still separated because of it.
At the same time, don’t forget to see it as a symbol of hope for a peaceful future.
Have you visited the DMZ or any place with a tragic history? What did you think about it? Share your experience in the comment section below.