During our year in South Korea, we lived in the far north of the country, our homes were only 15km from the North Korean border. We lived further north than all of the tourist attractions we will describe below. If you plan to go on a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) please be aware that it’s only a snapshot of what life is really like for Koreans in these areas.
What is the DMZ?
For a quick rundown:
The DMZ is a 4 km wide buffer that serves as the quasi-border between North Korea and South Korea. This 250km buffer separates the Korean Peninsular broadly in half, and once you move beyond the 2km Military Demarcation Line, it is one of the most militarised places on earth.
The pre-war border followed the 38th parallel; today the border follows the final position of troops at the signing of the armistice. The current day line is a little further north than the pre-war border. Apparently, there is also a huge amount of wildlife, including vampire deer (totally real – look them up!), although we never saw any in real life. We were also told on one of our tours that it is not uncommon to see injured wildlife due to the high number of landmines within the DMZ.
The river which ran through our town comes down from the North and comes from across the border. During monsoon season, we received text message alerts to say beware of the river during the high rains as landmines could be moved down the river. This totally reinforced how close we were.
What you can see whilst on tour in the DMZ
There are a number of types of tours to pick from including DMZ only, JSA only and joint DMZ & JSA tours. This can make choosing one quite tricky! We have tried to explain what you get to see at the different sites to help make your decision.
The DMZ is about an hours drive north of Seoul. Most tours start in the morning, leaving from one of the bigger hotels. Once you’re on the highway, you’ll go past some large cement blocks next to the highway (and sometimes as overpasses) which can be exploded over the road in case of invasion from the North. The one going into our town has a giant mammoth on it (our town has a prehistory museum).
Something to be aware of, if it is a colder morning, fair chance that the windows on your bus will fog up and you won’t see much of the surroundings on the drive up.
Joint Security Area (JSA)
Located in what was Panmunjeom, visiting the JSA comes with the opportunity to walk inside North Korea and is the main drawcard of the DMZ tours. A visit to the JSA is not included in all tours, so double check your itinerary!
You will need your passport, although you won’t be getting a stamp into North Korea. Your passport will be checked a couple of times by soldiers as you pass checkpoints into the JSA.
The JSA is under the control of United Nations Command, and you will be under escort for the entirety of your visit.
You will arrive at a place called Camp Bonifas (400m south of the border). Tour groups are shown a safety and history briefing and you are also asked to sign a waiver in case of an incident- basically agreeing that there is a chance of your death. You will then board a UN bus for a short trip to the House of Freedom. Whilst on this part of the tour, you will be under strict instruction from the UN soldiers as to where you can go, stand and what you can take photos of.
Once at the JSA you will have the opportunity to go into the Blue Conference Room (which allows you to step into North Korea), as well as take photos of the North Korean side from the steps of the House of Freedom. You may see some North Korean soldiers taking photos and watching the tours from the steps of their building. Some of the UN soldiers call them Bob as they bob in and out of their building all the time.
Whilst in the blue conference room, there will be South Korean guards in a taekwondo stance, who you can take photos next to. Generally, you get about 10 minutes in the blue room to take photos.
On your way back to your tour bus, you will get to drive past the bridge of no return, where prisoners of war were exchanged at the end of the war. We weren’t allowed to take photos here, but it was a quick drive past.
Tours are arranged so that there is only one at a time and you won’t see a North Korean tour at the same time.
Tours to the JSA do get cancelled due to a number of reasons including military training, rising tensions and diplomatic tours including presidents, prime ministers and foreign diplomats from around the world.
Perched atop Dora Mountain is an observatory of the same name. From here you can get a glimpse of North Korea. From Dora, you can see the North’s propaganda village, Kijong-dong, and on a clear day all the way to the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The Industrial complex was a jointly run manufacturing complex between the two Koreas however, was shut down by the South early in 2016 due to rising tensions.
Depending on the wind, you may also be able to hear some of the propaganda being broadcasted from Kijong-dong.
The 3rd Tunnel
Pre-warning: this part of the tour actually requires a fair bit of exercise!
The 3rd tunnel, also known as one of the infiltration tunnels and the 3rd tunnel of aggression, was discovered in 1978 after the detection of an underground explosion. It was one of four discovered, with numerous others which are believed to exist. The 3rd tunnel is the only one open to tourists and is about 1.6km long.
When you first arrive, there is an information centre where you’ll be given a short history on the war and the discovery of the tunnel. There is also a gift shop on site for your DMZ merch.
Next warning: the tunnel is quite steep and if you are of average height or above there will be a bit of ducking required. I think I hit my head at least 3 times, but you are given a hard hat to go down with to save the bruises.
The tunnel has been blocked off at the Demarcation line with 3 barricades. At this point, you can turn around and start the steep walk back up the tunnel.
Imjingak Park (Freedom Bridge)
The freedom bridge is at Imjingak Park, which is a bit of a mixture of a rest stop and a theme park alongside the historical features and memorials. The idea behind the park is to represent the desire for the reunification of Korea.
The freedom bridge itself was used for the exchange of POWs after the war and is said to have had 13,000 soldiers cross it. The bridge itself is now blocked off however you can walk to the start of it on the South Korean side. There is also an old locomotive which was used in the war by the South Koreans before it was destroyed and you can see the numerous bullet holes that penetrated it.
Alongside the bridge is a fence which is completely covered in ribbons. The ribbons are placed from the families who have been separated by the border and those who cannot return to their birthplace.
Other parts of the park include an observation deck on top of the building which gives a nice view of the North Korean countryside, the Bell of Peace, a couple of other memorials and a small theme park.
You can visit Imjingak park without having to be on an organised tour, it is the last village before the restricted zone in that part of Paju and is 7km south of the DMZ.
Dorasan station is currently the last stop on the Gyeongui Line at the top of the South Korean transport system and connects through to the North. The line after Dorasan is currently not in use, however, was used when Kaesong Industrial Park was still in production.
The hope is that Dorasan station would one day link South Korea to Europe, through the Trans-Asian Railway, via the Northern corridor. If Korea was to reunify, it could be possible to train from Southern Korea (Busan), right through to Europe.
You can buy a 50cent ticket to cross through the gates to stand on the platform.
Picking a tour
There are a number of companies who run both the DMZ and JSA tours. There are only a limited number of tours which can enter the JSA a day, and only about 5 companies that are allowed to run tours to the JSA.
What to consider when deciding what tour to book:
- What are the must-do locations of the DMZ do you want to see
- Some tours offer a North Korean defector on board the bus, giving you the opportunity to have your questions answered.
- There is a risk on the JSA tour that it could be cancelled at the last minute due to military training or rising tensions on the border.
- Book your JSA tour in advance- during peak times they can book out weeks in advance.
Photos by: Chris Hossen, Sarah Oborne + Tia Adie