One site we were very interested in visiting in Korea was the DMZ area, at the border between North and South Korea. It’s very possible to visit it on a tour, and well worth visiting, even if it serves as a somewhat somber reminder of the division of the Korean people since the Korean War in the early 1950’s.
As prepared for going, a few things we learned:
- The DMZ is really close to Seoul. Shortest distance is about 23km (15 miles), though practically speaking, it’s more like a 60-90 minute ride (70-80km).
- Seeing the DMZ is only possible on a tour with a licensed guide. Some days, tours are suspended by the military for random reasons, so schedule it on the early part of your trip, so you have time to rebook.
- It’s fairly safe to see – there are 1.2 million visitors per year. It’s an easy day trip from Seoul.
- If you can see the Joint Security Area, do so! But as of early 2023, our understanding is that it’s just reopening to visitors after being shut solid for a couple of years, so it wasn’t possible for us.
- If you have a choice of time, go early! Really. You’ll be jet-lagged anyway, but the real reason is that tour operators don’t truly have your the tickets until they show up that morning at the DMZ with your physical passport. The tour companies seem to coordinate capacity, but tickets are first-come-first-served, and occasionally things don’t work out for folks. Or they might have to wait around for hours for their time slot.
For our tour, we ended up picking a tour off a travel site – TripAdvisor / Viator / GetYourGuide all seemed to overlap significantly. We’re not typically huge fans of big bus tours, but this seemed to be the main way to seeing the DMZ. Reading the fine print, even some private tours had to hop onto a bigger bus to into the DMZ. But we could be wrong. So we went with a well-rated bus tour, though we double-checked that the tour didn’t have any forced shopping excursions (trip to “the jade factory,” anyone?).
Ride to Imjingak Peace Park
Our tour picked us up at 7am from the Myeongdong metro station, which was a convenient a 5 minute walk from our hotel. There was a second pickup closer to the edge of the city at 7:30, before we headed towards the highway. Between the two stops, our bus for was the most part filled, with a mixture of ages and backgrounds. From there, basically all the tours head towards the Imjingak Peace Park.
Why go there? This is where the tickets for the DMZ are issued by the military. Until then, you don’t really have a reservation. Our guide collected all our passports, and as soon as we got to the park, jumped off the bus to get into line for tickets. We arrived there at 8:45am, and she told us to wander around the various snack shops/restrooms/souvenir places until 9:15am, while she got tickets.
So we freshened up a bit. When the guide came back at 9:15am, she was happy that we had a DMZ time slot starting at 10:30am. Apparently, in some cases, it’s possible to have to wait several hours for a time slot. She started giving us an tour of the Imjingak Peace Park, telling us that the bus would leave at 10:20am.
Imjingak is on the edge of the “civilian control” zone – beyond that, there’s a zone controlled by the military (which you need a pass to visit), and then the last 2km is the true DMZ. But beyond that, Imjingak was set up as a place where people in South Korea could visit to remember their inaccessible relatives in the north, particular on holidays that people normally spent with their families.
They walked us by several memorial sites. There was a altar for people to go to remember their relatives. Additionally, we saw a monument of two girls to symbolize the many 14-17 year old girls who were taken by the Japanese soldiers during the occupation. We also saw a bridge which was used during the war for prisoner exchanges, but currently is too far south for that.
There were some additional exhibits, including a train which was used between the south and north, but damaged during the war. There was also a bridge, where you could pay a few dollars to go out slightly into the military control zone and take a look – we did this, though didn’t take pictures per the scary signs. It was an interesting, though somber setting.
Entering the Zone
Soon it was 10:20am, and the bus left for our 10:30am time slot in the zone. The guide explained that the military imposed a 2.5 hour time limit for visitors, and handed our passports back to us now that we had tickets. When we actually got to the checkpoint, we stayed on our bus, but showed our passports to the soldiers who boarded and pointed to our names on the roster.
We did hear some interesting stories on the bus ride. For instance, she pointed out a statue of a cow by the bridge pictured above. Apparently, the CEO of Hyundai Motors, when he was young, was originally from the north, but fled to the south when the war started, with one of his family’s cows. He apparently felt bad about taking his family’s cow. So years later, after he became wealthy, he donated 1,001 cows to the north, to make up for the cow he took.
She also pointed out rail lines and the road crossing checkpoint to Kaesong – there used to be a joint north-south factory just over the border in North Korea, which operated until 2013. It was hoped at one point that this factory would lead to more north-south cooperation, though currently it is closed:
Our first main DMZ site was the Third Infiltration Tunnel. The back story is that the North Korean government secretly built several tunnels under the border (and under the minefields above) – it would have been possible to send tens of thousands of troops per hour through these tunnels. One day, a northern defector walked through a tunnel to freedom. After this, the South Korean started looking carefully for hidden tunnels like this.
You’re not allowed to take a camera or phone into the tunnel, but the interesting part is that you can explore a real military tunnel and get within 170 meters of the North Korean border. There are 3 concrete barriers to prevent you from actually getting to North Korea (or from them getting to you), but you do get quite close.
There was roughly a 350 meter walk down into the tunnel, and another 450 meters inside the tunnel. As a caveat – the tunnel ceiling is very low. They do hand out helmets, but I’m over 6 feet tall, and lost count how many times I bumped my head. Even James hit his head a few times. It was very neat to see, if slightly precarious.
Above ground, there was a short film at the adjacent theater explaining the history, and there were several exhibits, which were nice as it took some members of the group a bit longer to get through the tunnel.
Next, we drove to the Dora Observatory, which had many telescopes and a view of the north. We could have gotten better pictures of this, but only had the iPhones with us, and hence couldn’t zoom very well at all.
That said, not too far away, we could see a tall North Korean flag and a tall South Korean flag, not far from each other – these could be seen without telescopes. We could see the Kaesong facility with the provided telescopes, and people walking around there. The guide was quite helpful pointing out various facilities on the northern side.
The guide told us some anecdotes; for instance, the North Koreans installed a large speaker by their flag, which said propaganda about their leader. So the South Korean side reciprocated by playing “Gangnam Style” and BTS K-Pop as a response. A frustrated North Korean soldier shot at the South Korean speaker, and eventually both sides agreed to mutually turn their speakers off.
But really, the highlight here was to just be able to look at “the other side” from fairly close range.
South Korea DMZ “Unification Village”
As a last stop in the DMZ, we spent a few minutes in a “Unification Village.” The idea is that the south built a small village on their side of the DMZ that the North Koreans could “spy on” and be impressed by. We only had a short amount of our 2.5 hour time limit left in the DMZ, so we had a short stop.
That said, I wouldn’t have been sad to have skipped this stop. The village wasn’t super impressive compared to the gleaming metropolis of Seoul, and you really only get to see a few souvenir shops. Below, you can apparently buy rice that’s grown in the DMZ:
Leaving the DMZ/Late Lunch
As stated in the intro, our tour didn’t include a visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA); perhaps in another year, these tours will become possible/common again. That said, I think the trip to the DMZ was well worth it even without the JSA.
In any case, we got on the bus again, and we crossed the checkpoint. The soldiers checked that everybody on the roster had left the DMZ. We hadn’t had lunch yet, and it was 1pm, so the next order of business was to drive back to Imjingak Peace Park to get some lunch. There were several restaurants in the Imjingak facility – James and I tried different Korean soups, though there were places that sold hamburgers, as well as just snacks.
After lunch, we wandered around the grounds for a bit. The guide gave us about an hour to eat and regroup. There was a small amusement park as well as a gondola that went slightly into the military zone. We didn’t really have time for those, but we saw plenty of soldiers on break there.
Gamaksan Suspension Bridge
Our tour also included a stop at the Gamaksan Suspension Bridge. It wasn’t necessarily super related to the DMZ, but it seems to be popular to include on a “full day DMZ” tour. It was maybe a half hour away from Imjingak Peace Park, and effectively “on the way” back to Seoul. There was a short hike to a waterfall across a suspension bridge, maybe a half hour round trip.
It was a nice break – and probably better highlighted the green mountainous nature of Korea. But I also wouldn’t necessarily have been disappointed if my tour hadn’t included it.
Back to Seoul
The bus then made its way back to Seoul, coming fairly close to the intended 5:30pm drop off at Myeongdong.
It was a long day – 7am to 5:30pm, but super interesting – how often do you get to step near and look at a super closed country like North Korea? If you’re in Seoul, we’d very much recommend joining such a tour. We did a walk around our neighborhood afterwards, Seoul looks great at sunset:
We visited the DMZ and JSA about 5 years ago. It was eerie driving down the road to the check point with the barriers in the road. I could feel my tension increase.
We didn’t see everything that you did but we did get to go inside the little blue building.
There were South Korean soldiers in there standing guard. They wear dark glasses and stand absolutely still for hours. They have some sort of a stance that allows them to do this.
They looked as serious as a heart attack. We were told to not even approach them.
They were so stern looking and faced south, that I thought they were N. Koreans.
I’m not sure if it was North or South, but someone was playing music when we were there. Again, eerie.
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Thanks for your comment and description! Wish we could have gone inside the blue building in the JSA.
The tour guide did mention the music from 5-10 (?) years ago, where first the North then the South started playing recordings from large speakers. After it got out of hand, both sides agreed to turn the speakers off.
Hard to believe they agreed on anything! Lol