Taking a DMZ tour and visiting the Korean border is a must-do while in Seoul. It may sound a little risque but don’t be freaked out: The heavily militarized Korean border is the country’s biggest tourist attraction.
Driving along the Korean freeway, camouflaged military outposts are stationed every few hundred yards and barbed wire fences follow the length of the road, cordoning off large bodies of water to prevent access to Seoul by North Korean spies.
The expensive cars of Korea’s over-worked businessmen and the family SUVs heading out on excursions have been replaced with military trucks and large industrial vehicles. At this point, we are only ten minutes north of Seoul but the landscape and the mood have changed dramatically as we drive along the road to Paju, the Northernmost point of South Korea and home to the demilitarized zone – the most heavily fortified border in the World.
After passing through a number of military checkpoints, we approach Camp Bonifas, the US and Korean army base that carries the slogan “in front of them all” based on their location on the Korean border, directly in front of the enemy, and subsequently on the front line should the situation between the two Koreas worsen.
After signing a declaration waving the United Nations and South Korea of any responsibility in the event of our death or injury, we would be permitted to spend the day exploring the infamous demilitarized zone and learning more about Korea’s tragic history.
Choosing a DMZ Tour
There are different DMZ tours available depending on your specific interests. It is important to do your research on the various DMZ tour operators and check the itineraries prior to making a booking.
Some DMZ tours are half-day tours and only take in a small portion of the sites. Some tours include the joint security area and others do not. The joint security area was a highlight for me. This is the infamous site where armed North and South Korean forces stand facing and constantly monitoring each other. It is your decision whether or not you feel comfortable venturing into this territory.
Things to Consider Before Booking a DMZ Tour
As you may imagine when visiting a heavily militarized border between two countries that are still technically at war, there are a few protocols that need to be followed for taking a DMZ tour.
Book in Advance
Most DMZ tour operators require you to book your trip in advance. Depending on the situation between north and south Korea at the time of your visit, your DMZ tour may be subject to cancellation or rescheduling.
Consider booking your DMZ tour for the first day of your Seoul itinerary so that you have time to alter the dates if necessary. DMZ tour operators like Get Your Guide (links enclosed) enable you to book online with plenty of time to spare.
Conservative Dress Required
You must dress conservatively on your DMZ tour. This means not wearing any clothes that are ripped or displaying offensive slogans. Jeans are perfectly okay, but your arms, legs, and midriff should be covered. Why all the fuss? North Koreans are often recording and photographing DMZ visitors. Those that are inappropriately dressed may find themselves the subject of anti-western propaganda!
Carry Your ID
You must carry your photo ID (passport) to be able to join a DMZ tour. You will pass through several checkpoints on your way to the border. If you do not have your ID with you, you will be denied a place on the tour.
Do Some Prior Research
Before embarking on a DMZ tour, it’s advisable to do a little reading about the situation between the two Koreas and to research some facts about North Korea.
This is by no means imperative, but you will have a stronger appreciation about the sites that you are seeing if you can put them in context with the historical and political events that have affected these two countries.
Interesting Spots on the DMZ Tour
Since I figured that taking a DMZ tour was only something I would do once, I decided to take a DMZ tour that covered practically everything in the region. In case you really have no idea what there is to see, some of the most interesting DMZ tour stopping points are:
- The Joint Security Area
- The History Museum
- Kaesong Industrial Complex
- Dorasan Rail Station
- Mount Dora Observatory
- The Infiltration Tunnels
- Checkpoint Three – Axe Murder Site
The Joint Security Area
Armed American and South Korean military escorts joined our party at Camp Bonifas and accompanied us to the Joint Security Area – a neutral zone within the DMZ used for diplomatic engagements.
Here, North and South Korean forces stand constantly facing each other, observing their enemy in an eerie silence.
We are given specific instruction to ignore any provocation by the North Koreans. Never moving, the lone North Korean guard watches us from the steps of Panmon Hall opposite.
The parted curtains on the first floor of the building make way for a recording device, with which we are being filmed, and the occasional twitching of blinds from the other windows at Panmon reveal additional North Korean soldiers, peering at us inquisitively with binoculars. Our military escort predicts that there are at least another 40 or so armed North Korean soldiers inside the hall at any given time.
Previous attempts to cross the border here (admittedly, not from this side of the line) have resulted in shoot outs between the two Korean forces.
We follow our military escorts and enter the meeting rooms in the center of the courtyard. The room is located directly on the borderline – from one side you are in communist North Korea, and from the other, you are safe in the South. Two intimidating South Korean guards block the doorway to North Korea, just in case you are crazy enough to try and cross the border.
Our entrance and exit to the Joint Security Area is made through the Freedom Building – a large glass structure built on the south side for the purpose of reuniting families that have been separated following the division of the two Koreas. Sadly, the building has never been used for its intended purpose as North Korea refuses to release citizens to the South so it simply acts as an elaborate structure through which you can access the JSA.
History Museum at the Korean Border
Back safely at Camp Bonifas, the museum here provides an interesting history to the demilitarized zone and the Korean war.
There have been numerous aggressive incidents at the border since its introduction, the most haunting of which was perhaps the story of “The Axe Murder Incident” whereby a group of 5 South Korean service corps staff were sent to prune a poplar tree that was overgrown, yet were intercepted by a group of 15 North Korean soldiers who attacked them, and bludgeoned them to death with their own tree trimmers and axes..
Our initial itinerary for the DMZ tour included a visit to South Korean Checkpoint 3, and the site of the ax murders, however, due to the situation with North Korea at the time of our visit, our military escorts would not allow us to visit this area.
Kaesong Industrial Complex
Our escorts advise us that the Joint Security Area is not the only access point to North Korea, and drive us to the entrance to Kaesong Industrial Complex.
Hyundai and the South Korean government developed this industrial estate north of the border in an attempt to reconcile with North Korea – employing 53,000 North Koreans in manufacturing roles and injecting much-needed cash into the Northern economy. (Despite their constant bravado and threats of nuclear weaponry, North Korea is an extremely poor country, often relying on handouts from South Korea and China)
South Korea ended this relationship in 2016 when Kim Jong Un started conducting missile tests and North Korea declared this end to business as a “declaration of war”, refusing to return assets and machinery back to the South.
Now, you can walk around the eerie modern, abandoned facility; the roads connecting North and South now barricaded. You can hear North Korean tannoys blasting messages into the South offering South Koreans paradise “under our great leader” and telling them not to be puppets of Imperialist pigs (Americans).
Arriving at Imjingak border village, we watch as a family of North Korean defectors help their elderly relative onto the ground so that he can bow to his ancestors, and pray for the family that he is separated from in the North.
Imjingak has a peculiarly upbeat vibe for a village located right on the Korean border – there is even a theme park here with attractions like the waltzers, and the pirate ship, that reminded me of those traveling gypsy amusement parks that you often see in the West. It’s a popular family day out and picnic spot, particularly for North Korean defectors, as this is the furthest point north that South Koreans can go freely.
There’s an observatory here, but you really cannot see much at all from this point so I would recommend the observatory at Dorasan, as from that point you can peer into North Korean towns and cities.
The remaining portion of the wooden “Freedom Bridge” that was used to transport POWs back from the North after the war is the main point of interest at Imjingak.
Wishes written on colored ribbons and affixed to the barbed wire fences surrounding the area pray for a reunification of the two Koreas.
The heartbreaking theme consistent throughout my visit is the hope of the South Korean people for a reunification of the two Koreas, and their constant efforts to reach out to the North that have been batted away – from the investments by leading South Korean businesses and the government at Kaesong complex, to handwritten wishes of a reunion scrawled onto colored paper and Korean flags by the elderly and the young generations alike…
Dorasan Rail Station
Dorasan station highlights another failed attempt by South Korea to reach out and reconnect with the North. The station was built, and tracks laid down in an attempt to reunify, and indeed, for a short while, freight trains traveled from South Korea to the joint venture that was Kaesong Industrial Region in the North. Trains were going to run from here to Pyongyang.
However, these routes were severed by North Korea following a fall out over their nuclear research, and now the station is mostly abandoned, accommodating just a few trains that arrive each day from Seoul carrying tourists.
Outside of the station, a marble wall displaying the names of all the South Korean companies and individuals who contributed to the building of Dorasan spans the circumference of the station.
Mount Dora Observatory
After a short uphill drive from Dorasan station, we find ourselves at the top of Mount Dora, and its observatory. A wholly surreal experience. As we step out of the car and our shoes crunch the gravel below, we are met with rows and rows of binoculars manned by inquisitive South Koreans peering at their neighbors in the North.
Upbeat K-Pop tunes are blasted out of numerous tannoys from South Korea and the music is so loud that the observatory tremors at the bass.
It’s difficult to capture the clarity of the view by photograph, but through the binoculars, you were provided with an insanely clear glance into North Korea.
To the right, you can look into NK’s “peace village” which looks like a really beautiful, brightly colored village, but it’s actually fake and uninhabited, designed to lure South Korean defectors across the border. Immediately ahead is Kaesong city.
The Third Infiltration Tunnel
The third infiltration tunnel was the third of four tunnels discovered by South Korea in the seventies and eighties that were created by the North for a surprise attack on Seoul.Through this tunnel, 30,000 armed North Korean soldiers would have been able to reach Seoul in just one hour.
The tunnels were discovered thanks to a North Korean defector who was a Civil Engineer for the project and pointed out their location, however, the North is still denying any part in the creation of the tunnels, claiming that they have no idea where they came from. When the tunnels were found, coal had been smeared on the walls and scattered around in a weak attempt to disguise the tunnels as disused coal mines.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t take our cameras into the infiltration tunnel and had to both leave everything in a locker and go through body scanners before entering the tunnel.
The tunnel is perhaps not for the claustrophobic as we had to crouch most of the way. A thin wooden board with window holes in it marked the furthest point that we could go. Glimmering sunlight from North Korea on the other side indicated that it was time to turn back….
Are you interested in visiting the DMZ? Have you been? Leave your questions and comments below!