All Eyes Face North: A Day in Korea’s Demilitarized Zone
Not too far to the north of Seoul is one of the intriguing destinations in South Korean tourism, the result of a highly dangerous and controversial military disconnect. The 248 kilometer long, 4 kilometer wide Demilitarized Zone, known as the DMZ, serves as a buffer between South and North Korea, the two nations that make up the divided Korean peninsula. Many of the visitors to South Korea each year crave a glimpse of the highly elusive yet tantalizingly appealing North Korean countryside that the border provides.
Despite its name, the DMZ is still one of the most heavily militarized areas in the world, more than 60 years after the Armistice Agreement was signed. Steeped in history from the Korean War, the DMZ offers visitors both an informative and thrilling expedition.
"Steeped in history from the Korean War, the DMZ offers visitors both an informative and thrilling expedition."
Just after 7am, travelers from around the globe board a large bus, not long after the sun has risen. It takes just over an hour driving north from Seoul to reach the entrance to the DMZ. As the bus approaches the gated entrance, the highway becomes surrounded by towering fences lined with rolling barbed wire. The first stop is Camp Bonifas, where civilians are briefed by a member of the U.S. Army who will chaperone this portion of the tour. After passports are checked, it is made implicitly clear that photographs cannot be taken until instructed.
The bus, headed for the Joint Security Area (JSA), winds through roads surrounded by tank traps and millions of landmines. Cloudy grey skies set a felicitous backdrop for a very tense and up close encounter at the contentious boundary line. The JSA at Panmujeon is the only area in the DMZ where soldiers from the North and South meet face to face. The area offers an eerie silence as a single North Korean soldier stands atop the steps of the building just meters away. Together, U.S. Army and ROK soldiers guard the southern side of the border, defined only by a single concrete slab. While visitors are invited to take photographs, all cameras have to face north, and communication of any kind, even simple hand gestures, is prohibited.
The group is then ushered into the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) Conference Room. The site of the signing of the ceasefire between the U.N. and North Korea in 1953, the conference room houses meetings between the North and South today. Two ROK soldiers wait, completely motionless, near a large, wooden table, situated in the center of the room. As civilians circle the table, they are informed that they are officially entering North Korea, and are able to take a picture with a South Korean guard in unchartered territory.
Throughout the trip, the US Army chaperone offers visitors the opportunity to ask questions, and gives insight into the daily life of DMZ soldiers. He tells stories of unending competition between the North and the South; rebuilding buildings to stand taller, erecting flags to fly higher, and even posting guards to tower over their adversaries. While one may expect the mood within the DMZ to be somber and tense, the US Army chaperone and tour guide consistently provide a lighthearted take on this weighty situation.
The next stop on the tour is Dorasan Station, originally built to connect Dorasan and Pyongyang by train. The modern building, complete with security entrance checkpoints and a large waiting room for nonexistent travelers, feels vacant and idle. Signs pointing to Pyongyang line empty tracks, while guests walking up and down the platform can imagine the hustle and bustle that may arise if the peninsula were someday able to mend its combative divide.
Following Dorasan Station, the tour visits Dora Observatory in Paju-si, situated at the northernmost point of the Military Demarcation line. From the observation platform, coin-operated binoculars are available to allow a closer view of what lies north. A large banner identifies locations that can be seen (some only on a good day), including a Kim Il-Sung statue, Taesesong-dong, which houses the impressively tall South Korean flag, and Kijong-dong, or the propaganda village, which boasts an even taller North Korean flag. Dora Observatory is the ideal location to take in a panoramic view of North Korea’s natural terrain.
The tour ends at the Third Infiltration Tunnel, discovered in 1978, which is believed to have been designed for a surprise attack on Seoul. Travelers laden with yellow hard hats trek through the tunnel by way of a very steep incline, ending only 170 meters from North Korean territory. The dark, humid channel, said to be able to hold over 30,000 soldiers, reeks of stale air, and echoes of hard hats hitting the rocky ceiling ring out. The trenches provide a glimpse into the gloomy reality of the desperation of the North.
Despite the hostile atmosphere associated with a trip to the DMZ, it serves as common ground for unification. The soil where ROK soldiers and U.S. military members work together to defend peace and uphold justice not only unites the two nations, but also offers visitors from around the world the unique opportunity to experience a unique destination where unity meets division. The DMZ is highly recommended for those who wish to see how two nations can build a united front during such a menacing time.
"The soil where ROK soldiers and U.S. military members work together to defend peace and uphold justice not only unites the two nations, but also offers visitors from around the world the unique opportunity to experience a unique destination where unity meets division."
Several companies have joined together with the U.S. Army to offer various half- and full-day tours to the DMZ. Guests can choose a tour based on price and desired visitation sites, and most are sold out weeks in advance. Those wishing to attend tours visiting the Joint Security Area must book their tour at least one week in advance. All guests must submit valid passport information and present their passport while on the tour. A strict dress code is enforced, requiring all civilians to dress in casual, semi-formal or formal attire. Shoes must be closed toed. Backpacks, purses and camera bags are permitted, but must be left on the bus at all times. Shorts or skirts above knee length, sports uniforms, oversized/baggy clothing, sheer clothing, or clothing with military-style camouflage are prohibited. Security escorts reserve the right to refuse admission to any person refusing to follow the dress code. Additionally, photographs are only permitted at certain times.
Tour Information: Tours are available year round, and are run by various companies. Tours are not operated on Mondays and National Holidays. Recommended tour groups are as follows:
Koridoor Tours operates a full day visit to the DMZ & 3rd Tunnel/JSA, Dora Observatory & Dorasan Station from Yongsan for KRW 96,000, and a half day DMZ & 3rd tunnel tour from Yongsan for KRW 40,000.
Cosmojin Tours operates a tour to the JSA, 3rd Observatory and Bridge of No Return for KRW 137,000, and a tour to the DMZ, 3rd Tunnel, Dora Observatory & Dorasan Station for KRW 46,000.
Seoul City Tour Co. operates a tour to the DMZ/JSA and Dora Observatory or Imjingak Park for KRW 85,000-95,000 (depending on departure location) and a tour to the DMZ, 3rd Tunnel and Imjingak Park for KRW 40,000-50,000.
All tours listed may attend additional sites dependent upon current military tensions and accessibility on any given day.
Where: Tours begin in downtown Seoul, departing from various U.S. military bases and locations designated by each tour company.
Cost: Ticket prices vary per tour length and destinations visited
Transport: Shuttle buses transport guests to and from the DMZ