Every seasoned traveller wants that unique experience, something completely out of the ordinary. It’s not that easy, there’s always plenty of reasons not to go somewhere. Maybe there’s not much to see, or just too much effort to get there. Other places are avoided as they’re simply too dangerous…but these are often the most exciting!
Korea is home to potentially one of the most dangerous places on Earth, a region that’s been on the brink of war for the past 70 years. The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) marks the fragile dividing border between North and South Korea. The heavily guarded line keeps the fragile illusion of peace while maintaining a threatening stance towards each other. As dangerous as the DMZ may appear, regular buses full of tourists are still brought to observe life along the tension-filled border.
There are plenty of things you should know before your trip! So much history that should be learned! So here’s everything you need to know about visiting the DMZ.
Table of Contents
A Brief History
1950 saw the first act of direct military action of the Cold War as 75,000 soldiers from North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel, the boundary line set between the newly formed Korean nations. The North was supported by the Chinese and the Soviet Union who wanted to expand their communist ideologies, while the US backed South Korea in their fight against communism.
After justling for position, there was little progress from either side and a high number of casualties. The US looked for a way to bring an end to the fighting before the Russians or the Chinese directly got involved, or worse, cause a third world war.
The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)
Chronicles of my time exploring the DMZ! Read about what I went through during my own time travelling in one of the most fragile areas in the world.
Finally, in July 1953, the Korean War came to an end as both sides agreed to a cease-fire. The two nations were divided along a 150-mile-long line which ran along the 38th parallel. The Demilitarized Zone was established as a no-man’s land separated by a 1.2 miles (2 km) buffer zone on either side of the line. Since then each nation’s border has been heavily fortified and prepared if the cease-fire ever came to an end. Though there have been a few minor incidents, there has been no significant conflicts since the DMZ was established.
The DMZ marks the exact border between North and South Korea and crosses the entire peninsula. Its located just 50kms from Seoul and 5kms from Kaesong in North Korea. Despite its size, there’s only one section you’re able to visit, and only as a part of a licensed tour which leaves from Seoul.
Types of Tours
Several tour companies operate daily tour groups from Seoul, with most picking you up from your hotel. Tours are usually broken into two categories; touring the area before the DMZ (including the Dora Observatory and the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel) or tours of the area known as Panmunjom (including the JSA (Joint Security Area)). Some tours offer the chance to see everything though of course, these are more expensive.
I’d recommend taking the full package, there’s just too many good things to miss out! It may be a little more expensive but it’s a truly one of a kind experience. I chose a tour with Cosmo Jin. Be warned, some tours will take you on “forced shopping” detours i.e. stop off at a jewellery store before returning to Seoul.
Be Warned: ItCould Be Dangerous
Though there hasn’t been active warfare since the DMZ was established (outside a few minor incidents), it’s not exactly safe. At any moment it could become one of the most dangerous areas on Earth. At certain points on the tour, guides will warn tourists they’re only able to stay for a short while as North Korean snipers pointed towards you could fire at any point.
As this is the only open gateway to the south, its become the prime location for North Korean defectors to escape to safety. The North isn’t willing to let that happen and will try to shoot them down. Once they cross the border, the gunshots stop, as any bullet crossing the borderline would be seen as an act of war towards the South.
Nestled between the misty mountain ranges and the newly renovated beaches is South Korea’s second largest city, one which boasts everything one would expect from a global cultural centre. Busan proudly displays both its extraordinary natural beauty as well as the resources it provides
Oh and not to mention, though the fighting is over, the war technically isn’t. No official peace treaty was signed at the end of the war. After all, both sides still believe that one day there will be a unified Korea, and both believe it will be their political ideologies in place, be it democratic or a dictatorship. So there’s always a chance the war could restart.
Entering the DMZ
Obviously, you can’t just walk right up to the DMZ! Only Imjingak Park can be visited without a licensed tour group. To enter you must go along the Freedom Road which leads across the Unification Bridge. Not only was the bridge built as a gesture of hopes of reunification, but its also a checkpoint for arriving tourists, so remember to bring your passport!
There are several attractions spread across the DMZ, each more unique than the last. Some tours bring you to the sites a little outside of the border, the Panmunjom tours take you right up against it.
The Joint Security Area (JSA)
Also known as Panmunjeom, the JSA is the area that straddles the open border of North and South Korea. Its purpose has been to provide a place of contact between the North and South and allows their truce to be managed. It’s also the common route for North Korea defectors to cross over to the South! So if any bullets were to fly, it would be here!
Placed directly on the border is a series of blue conference halls known officially as the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC). This is where Korean and UN officials originally met to sign a truce agreement and is still used to facilitate a dialogue between them.
Top 15 Highlights: Jeju Island
For the citizens of South Korea, Jeju Island is their own little slice of paradise. A tropical island separated from the mainland by turquoise blue ocean and surrounded by pristine white beaches.
You’re allowed to briefly enter one of the rooms where you’ll see a North Korean soldier constantly posted on the door. Of course, you can’t cross into North Korea…or can you? The Military Demarcation Line passes directly through the middle of the conference table, meaning if you walk to the other side of the room (which you’re allowed to do) you’ll be standing IN North Korea!
The Bridge of No Return
From 1953 to 1976, the bridge crossed the Military Demarcation Line and was the site of many tense exchanges. Thousands of Koreans, Chinese, Americans and even British prisoners of war were released to freedom across it. Its name came from the ultimatum given to prisoners before they crossed. They were offered the opportunity to stay in the country (a god choice for North Koreans), but once they stepped over the line, there was no turning back.
These exchanges came to an abrupt end in 1976 after the “Axe Murder Incident“. Two U.S. military officers were killed by axe-wielding North Korean soldiers when they went out to trim their beloved tree that obscured the view across the bridge. This caused a real problem, as this was the only entrance to the JSA from the North at the time. After the incident, the DMZ had to be moved back to where it is today in the JSA.
“We can’t stay long because it’s not 100% safe”. This is what you’re told as you approach the Dora Observatory, one of the few places you’re able to look into North Korea. Bear in mind you’re in full view of the North’s military and their weapons at all times! With the telescopes provided or even a powerful enough camera, you’ll have a closer look at what the North Koreans want you to see. Though it might not be wise taking pictures of North Korean military positions…
The view is filled with some incredible sights. The most noticeable is an enormous pair of flag poles on either side of the border, one of many reminders of the everlasting dick-measuring contest the Korea’s are in. When one side set up a flagpole, the other side had to make a bigger one, and then the other side made it bigger, and so on. There couldn’t be a more appropriate phallic metaphor.
You’ll also be able to see “fake villages“, entire towns filled with carbon-copied buildings. On closer inspection, you’ll notice that they’re completely empty, there isn’t even glass in the windows! No people are walking the streets, it’s a total ghost town. They’re there just to make North Korea look more prosperous, like most of the villages you’ll see.
However, to the far left of the panoramic view is an actual village…with actual people! You’ll be able to see them go about their daily lives, riding bicycles along the village lanes. Whether they’re actors or props of prosperity doesn’t matter, it’s still a spine-tingling moment to see genuine civilians of North Korea.
3rd Infiltration Tunnel
Despite a 70 year-long cease-fire, both nations have endlessly worked towards getting the upper hand, especially the North. Since the DMZ was established, North Korea tried to find a way into the South. What better way than a tunnel? In total, four tunnels dug from the North have been discovered, the third of which you’re able to visit.
The tunnel was discovered in 1978 thanks to the information provided by a defector. It actually managed to cross the DMZ though it didn’t break the surface. The North Koreans denied that they built it and insisted that it belonged to the South. They then claimed it was just part of a coal mine and painted black soot along the tunnel’s walls as they retreated to support their excuse.
I have been fortunate enough to visit several cities and regions of the very much underestimated nation of South Korea. Cities with enough relics and attractions to keep travellers of varying interests entertained for the duration of their trip.
Today, visitors can visit the tunnel which they, theoretically, could walk all the way to North Korea! Of course, you can’t go all the way, but you do at least find yourself partway under the DMZ. You’ll only be 170 meters from the Northern border!
Located 7kms from the Military Demarcation Line, Imjingak has been at the centre of the Korean Conflict since the beginning. It was originally built as a safe place for those who fled North Korea. Today its become one of the DMZ’s biggest tourist attractions, partly because you can visit without passing security checkpoints.
Imjingak holds several monuments and reminders to commemorate the war. One of the most noticeable of which is an enormous old train which was found knocked off its rails after being caught in the crossfire of the war.
Close-by you’ll also find a quite depressing looking theme park. Why is it so suspiciously close to the border? Because its easily in view of the North, and is used to show off the country’s prosperity and hopefully entice North Koreans over the border in the never-ending propaganda battle.
The Monuments for Unification displays messages hope left by visitors that one day Korea will reunite. There are also 12 kinds of tanks and crafts on display that were used during the Korean Conflict. Over the river stands the remains of the Gyeongui Train Line which was destroyed during the war. Beside it is a complete bridge which is still used today for transport towards Dorasan Station. Speaking of which…
Dorasan Train Station
This one’s a bit spooky but optimistic. The train station was built as nothing more than a symbol of hope that one day both nations would reunify, or at least bring an end to the DMZ. Standing just 700 meters away from the boundary line, Dorasan is the “last” train station in South Korea. Its only use at the moment is to bring tourists from Seoul once a day. The hope is that someday this would be the gateway to North Korea. It could also be used in railway routes from as far as western Europe linking all the way to the Korea peninsula.
A nice little bonus is you can get a commemorative stamp which would be used for entry into the North. However, it’s highly recommended that you don’t put this stamp in your passport, as it will cause a hell of a lot of needless hassle for you on your future travels.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.