Travel period Jan 2017
There was one part of our South Korea trip that was certain to happen. That was to visit the DMZ!
We have entered the world’s most protected border and witnessed the spine-chilling tension between North and South Korea. Excited as it may sound, there were a few things we kept in mind when we decided to visit this area.
Separating the two Koreas, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is loaded with land mines, missiles, and other destructive tools; all readily-prepared for a war that could erupt at any time. For all of these reasons, we buckled up and embarked on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure! Here is our story…
The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)
The DMZ, or Korean Demilitarized Zone, is a heavily fortified buffer and war zone that runs along the 38th parallel separating South Korea and North Korea. The demilitarized zone runs across the Korean Peninsula for 250 kilometres (160 miles). It is about 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) wide.
The DMZ was created on July 27, 1953 during the Korean Armistice Agreement, which marked the end of the Korean War.
South Korea and North Korea agreed to pull troops back 2,000 meters (2,200 yards) from the front line. This front line is now known as the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).
This buffer zone is still highly militarized and patrolled on each side to protect against invasions. According to the agreement, troops may patrol the DMZ but may not cross the Military Demarcation Line.
The war may be over but the threat still remains. Many incidents have occurred over the years including Operation Paul Bunyan and the Axe Murder Incident in August 1976 which took place at the “Bridge of No Return”, that links the north and south.
Two villages, Tae Sung Dong and Kijong-dong, are located inside the DMZ.
Coming to the DMZ, we could still feel the tension between the two countries, especially at the sight of tank traps, electric fences, landmines and armies in full battle readiness. A glance at the soldiers standing guard with dark shades in military pose alone is already intimidating enough.
How to Visit DMZ
As the DMZ has restricted civilian access and requires a military escort, we decided to visit on a full day tour. This tour enables you to see one of the observatories (where you can look out over North Korea), the “Unification Bridge”, a train station that links both countries via a single line and the 3rd Tunnel – a 1,632m tunnel dug by the North Koreans, from which they could pass through into Seoul within an hour and invade. The day would end with a visit to the main site, the JSA. To explore the site, we booked a joint visit DMZ and JSA from KTB tour, which is an approved travel agency.
After a hotel pickup in Seoul, our tour started with the drive to Imjingak Park to see the Freedom Bridge, a symbol of the tragedies of the Korean War. Then headed toward the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
The US soldier, our guide, was young, knowledgeable and delivered a fantastic presentation that was factual and historically sound. We were informed of some rules to follow – we were not allowed to take pictures of any North Korean guards that may appear in the building in the background, and not to make any faces or hand gestures which they could film and use as propaganda or as a means of retaliation.
The Highlights of DMZ
This was a United Nations Command military post that houses the United Nations Command Security Battalion of the Joint Security Area, whose primary mission is to monitor and enforce the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953.
The Republic of Korea and United States Forces Korea soldiers (or “security escorts”) regularly conduct orientation programs for those who are going to tour JSA — which would be us. At this point, we were signing a waiver that absolves South Korea, the UN, and the USA in case any incidents that will arise, agreeing to the following statement:
“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.”
Joint Security Area (JSA)
This was the ultimate highlight of our entire tour, because it was the only place in South Korea that allows you to get so close to North Korean soldiers without being arrested or fired at. Needless to say, this experience takes us to the ‘front lines’ and we could see up close the tension between the two countries.
The Joint Security Area (JSA), also known as Panmunjom, it was the exact place in the DMZ where the two Korean leaders and top aides meet and where the peace talks were held in 1951, and the Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953.
JSA is now under the protection of both North and South Korea. It also consists of the infamous blue conference rooms where negotiations often take place and where South and North Korean soldiers stand face to face. As we entered one of the conference rooms, we were allowed to walk to the opposite side of the room, where we were technically standing on North Korean soil.
The Bridge of No Return
The “Bridge of No Return”, located inside the JSA, crosses the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and separates South Korea from North Korea. It is a small bridge where POWs were exchanged after the end of Korean war. All the POWs were carried to both ends of the bridge and they were given a choice. Once they chose to cross over the road, they could not return or turn back, hence the name “Bridge of No Return”. About thirteen thousand UNC prisoners returned to their countries, and about eighty-nine thousand KPA and Chinese prisoners returned to their communist nations.
Imjingak Park, was established in the year 1972, right after the South-North Armistice, with the hope that one day unification will be brought back to Korea. It is the furthest north that any South Korean civilians can legally reach.
Unlike the tension that we found in JSA, Imjingak creates an unexpectedly carefree and happy ambiance. There were hundreds of photos and numerous historical artefacts from the Korean War on display.
Bridge of Freedom
The “Bridge of Freedom” has received its name from being built as a walkway with the purpose of exchanging prisoners at the end of the Korean War in 1953.
At the Bridge of Freedom, we noticed a bunch of colourful ribbon streamers with a line of notes on them attached to the barbed wire border fence. Apparently, these are messages from citizens living in the Southern part to their beloved relatives in the North, whom they have not been able to see in decades since the demarcation.
The Third Tunnel
The Third Tunnel (also known by the name The Third Tunnel of Aggression or Third Infiltration Tunnel) is an actual tunnel among four known ones in the area of DMZ. This particular subterranean passage was incompletely dug by the North Koreans with the intention of launching a surprise attack on Seoul, but it was discovered by the South Koreans at the end of 1970s.
Just the thought of this is quite frightening, and as if that was not enough, we were even told by our guide that there’s a possibility of 10 or 20 other tunnels that have not been discovered yet! When this 3rd tunnel was found, North Korea defended itself by saying that it’s a part of a blasted coal mine; but of course, evidence on the tunnel’s walls suggest otherwise (e.g. the walls are made of granite and some parts of the walls were even painted black by North Korea to resemble coal).
Frankly speaking, the journey down the tunnel and back up to the surface was extremely tiring, yet also a rewarding experience that we were glad we did, and thank ourselves for the efforts.
DMZ Theatre and Exhibition Hall
DMZ Theatre and Exhibition Hall is within the area of DMZ Museum. The site is helpful in introducing us lock, stock, and barrel about DMZ and the Korean war, as well as the disastrous aftermath of warfare through a 15-minute 3D documentary video.
We had a chance to gain a deeper understanding of the historical background as well as the cultural value of the whole area. We also learned how DMZ has transformed from a political scar into a symbol of peace and ecology.
Situated on Dorasan (Mount Dora), Paju-si, Dora Observatory is placed at the northernmost point of Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and was first opened to the public in January 1987. Since then, the observation has become a tourist spot in DMZ, and we were able to catch a rare glimpse of the secluded Northern part of Korea.
We looked closer into North Korea with onsite binoculars, and we also witnessed things like the North Korean propaganda “Peace Village”/”Propaganda Village” (built to resemble a prosperous town but is actually a ghost town), Kaesong city (a nearby city with thousands of North Koreans living in it), and others. We got a strange feeling knowing how close we were to North Korea.
This is the northernmost train stop on South Korea’s railway line that serves as yet another tourist attraction on DMZ. Dorasan Station, a railway station on Geyongui Line, was constructed with the intention of connecting the South Korea’s railway system to the North and hopefully the rest of Asia.
Regrettably, due to the palpable tension between the two countries, the station is almost empty and the train track from the South to the North has never been in use — until the day that it would finally serve as a proper train station that connects North and South Korea when peace finally prevails.
We actually purchased train tickets to Pyongyang, but it was just a payment for the chance to stand on the platform as we “waited” for a train that will never come, and obtain the stamps on the tickets to commemorate our visit to Dorasan station.
If one day these countries do make peace, the story of North and South Korea will be told for many years to come, and with this toured, we had our own story to tell!
Important Things You Need to Know
- You are required to sign a waiver agreeing that no one is responsible for accident, injury or even death. But you can rest assured that nothing can ever happen to you since there are at least two military escorts accompanying with you at the border. As long as you strictly follow the rules, you are completely safe.
- It is compulsory to bring your currently valid passport with you on the day of the tour, it will be checked on arrival of JSA and some other spots.
- You must comply with the specified dress code. Sleeveless shirts, round neck tees, ripped denim pants, shorts, mini-skirts, leather clothes, revealing clothing, and clothes with profane and provocative texts, sandals, slippers, military-printed attire are strictly prohibited.
- You are not allowed to enter the DMZ on your own, and some countries are required to have a Background Check from the United Nations, so contact your tour operator for more information.
- Cameras with zooming lens are not permitted in the area. You may be refrained from taking photos at non-designated spots.
- Children under 10 cannot enter the JSA.
- DMZ tours is subject to abrupt changes and cancellation due to the occurrence of a military event.
Pre-book Tours Online
Tours can be booked in advance from a variety of tour companies online with GetYourGuide and Viator. You pay in advance and get fast confirmation, so all you need to do is bring your voucher to the tour. There are reviews, photos, and videos that make choosing the right tour simple. Many DMZ tours require back and forth e-mail or phone communication when booking direct, so GetYourGuide and Viator are convenient ways to avoid all that hassle.
Here are some of the top-rated tours that can be booked online:
Price: 65,000-130,000 won (~$65-$130 USD). All tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.
Panmunjeom Travel Center
Telephone: +82-2-771-5593 (Korean, English, Japanese)
Price: 60,000-77,000 won (~$60-$77 USD). All tours include lunch.
Note: Tours offered in Korean, English, and Japanese. This is the only company that allows you to meet a North Korean defector/refugee, ask them questions, and better understand the human rights issues of North Korea.
Telephone: 02-6383-2570 ext. 2
Price: 43,000-89,000 won (~$41-$80 USD). Most tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours offered in English.
Price: 85,000-120,000 won (~$85-$120 USD). All tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.
DMZ Spy Tour
Price: 88,000-114,000 won (~$88-$114 USD). Tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.
International Culture Service Club
Price: 65,000-85,000 won (~$65-$85 USD). All tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English and Japanese. This is the only company that does Saturday tours.
Seoul City Tour
Price: 40,000-125,000 won (~$40-$125 USD). Only some tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours are offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.
DMZ & JSA Tour (Professional Guide Service / Celebrity’s choice Agency)
Telephone: +82-2-318-0345 (Korean, English, Japanese), +82-2-318-0425 (Chinese)
Price: 46,000 won (~$46 USD) for half-day tour, 87,000 won (~$87 USD) for full day tour. Lunch included on full day tour.
Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese.
Note: The information provided in this post was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service.
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