One of the key places to visit in South Korea is the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and I must agree with those saying it’s a “must see”. What is DMZ? It is a 4 km wide and 250 km long stretch of land, a border on the 38th parallel between North and South Korea. It was established as a buffer zone between both countries after the war in 1953. Actually, only an armistice was signed, so technically the war isn’t over. DMZ is very close to Seoul, only about 56 km from the capital, so the threat for the capital of the South Korea is real.
DMZ is supposed to have a fixed maximum amount of peacekeepers (should be not more than 1000 from each side, but in reality it is closer to 10 000 total), and the soldiers shouldn’t have machine guns (which is exactly the type of guns they have). The name de-militarized makes you think of the opposite, but actually this is the most militarized area in the world.
We visited Korea during the summer of 2017, when tensions are high and every day on the news you could read yet another exchange of words between Trump and Kim Jong-un. It made us wonder if we should be heading home instead, but it almost felt like locals did not care much about the tensions. Sure, you could say daily reports about the situation on the news, but our friends assured us this is how it has always been and that is the reality of living next door to North Korea. We also received a notification from our safety service with the latest update in Korea, and DMZ was mentioned as safe tour to do. As we had booked the tour already from home, we decided to do it anyway, as 100 000 other tourists do every year.
How to Choose the Tour and What to Consider?
There are numerous companies that offer the tours. Some take only half a day, others a full one, some include lunch, others don’t. Pay attention if your tour includes a visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA) or the “blue house”, as it is the most interesting place to visit while in DMZ! Some tours offer opportunity to talk to a North Korean defector, others also include the Freedom Bridge and other locations. Bear in mind that tours to JSA don’t happen every day, Mondays are supposed to be off, but the private doing our tour mentioned that those are so popular than now they have started doing them on Mondays as well. You should book the tour a couple of weeks in advance, not only because the tours are likely to be fully booked but also because some countries, like my homeland Latvia, are among those requiring stricter background checks, and you must submit a passport copy few days in advance. Although most of the websites say South Koreans are not allowed in the tours, it is actually not true, they are, but they have even more extensive background check to prevent defectors.
We selected Koridoor (previously known as USO tours) full day tour (departure 7:30, arrival around 16:00 depending on the traffic), and it was 96 thousand won per person (72 euros, charged from our card in advance, as prepayment is required). We contacted Koridoor via Facebook. Our tour included:
- JSA, where you get to see the North Korean guard and stand literally on the border
- Dorasan station – last rail station on the South Korean side
- Dora observatory – place where you can see the propaganda village on the other side and hear propaganda blaring through the speakers on the other side
- 3rd Infiltration Tunnel – 73 m deep underground tunnel under DMZ discovered in 1978 and dug by North
Lunch was not included in our tour and cost additional 7-10 thousand won, depending on what you selected (you could also take your own meal with you). There were no additional shopping stops as in some of the other tours.
When booking the tour you will receive a long list of banned clothing items from the tour. No torn jeans, T-shirts with slogans, spandex, or sportswear, sandals, flip flops or other open-toed shoes, no short dresses, no shorts shorter than knee (both men and women), no shirts without collar or at least short sleeves. Jeans are ok. I also read that you cannot take camera lenses with focal length more than 90 mm, so we left ours in the hotel. Turns out, this only applied to JSA and we could have used our lenses in the observatory.
We decided not to thing long about it and wore jeans, sneakers, a blouse for me and short-sleeved shirt for Jekabs. On the day of the tour it was over 30 degrees Celsius and it really wasn’t easy! Actually, we didn’t see anyone enforcing the rules, as some of the shorts were very much borderline.
The reason for such strict rules is simple – North Korean side photographs everyone on the tour and torn jeans are one of the examples in their propaganda against the West, depicting tourists as incredibly poor. How someone could see that as the truth? North Koreans don’t have almost any access to foreign TV (you can end up in labor camp for watching it) and many of the defectors say that arriving to the South was like going 50 years in the future. Torn jeans does not equal fashion in the North.
Before going to South Korea and visiting the DMZ, it is good to catch up on some reading. I read Yoen-mi Park’s book “In Order to Live”, Kang Chol-hwan’s “Aquariums of Pyongyang”, as well as watched the documentaries “Under the Sun” (story of a fake North Korean family) and “Liberation Day” (story of Slovenian rock band Laibach performing in North Korea). It was useful to learn about the debate and recent history of the place. I can still hear Arirang in my head, the national folk song of Koreans, played in the movie, when I write these words.
The Day of the Tour
We arrive shortly before 7 at the Koridoor, as the bus leaves at 7:30 and we were told to come thirty minutes before. Our bus ends up leaving late, as we wait for an American lady of Korean descent who is running late. At least we don’t spend an hour and a half driving around the city and picking up tourists in other hotels.
We need to sign a waiver that we understand the risks associated with the tour, which include injury and death. The tour may also be cancelled due to safety reasons and there won’t be any refunds. We are also told that we are only allowed to take pictures where explicitly told so, especially in JSA. Later we learn that this means that only the North side can be photographed, even the selfies have to be with back towards the North. They also give us tour ID badges to wear during the day.
It takes about an hour to get to the DMZ. We travel along the river and see North Korea on the other side, everyone jumps up to take some pictures. Barbed wire encloses the Southern side. Meanwhile our guide tells us about the Korean war, what we will see today and organizes small competition where you can win a bottle of water. It takes a while for us to get accustomed to her pronunciation.
JSA Joint Security Area
The first step is a the gate of Camp Bonifas, where they check our passports. It was renamed from Camp Kitty Hawk to Camp Bonifas in honor of major Bonifas who died in 1976 in Axe Murder Incident. North Koreans murdered two American soldiers with axes when they had tried to trim a tree obscuring the viewpoint. North Koreans claimed the tree was planted by Kim Il-sung. UN soldiers had filmed the entire incident, but that did not stop the North from claiming it was the Americans who had started the assault. After this incident JSA was split into two and free movement of both sides in the area stopped.
Before going into the “blue house” we hear a lecture about DMZ and the history of Korean war. I was surprised to learn that Poland and Czech Republic were involved in the DMZ too. American private explicitly asks only to take pictures and not to film him, but that doesn’t stop some of the tourists. He later tells the group that any unauthorized pictures will be deleted and you can get kicked out of the tour for it. From this point on he becomes our guide in the JSA.
After the lecture we are escorted to another bus which takes us to the border. Here we see the location of the Sunken Garden from our windows, the place where Russian man, who defected from the Soviet Union, hid in 1984 after sprinting across the border. This had caused a shooting, two North Korean guards died and two were executed on the spot for permitting his escape. Vasily Matusak, then 22, succeeded with the escape and according to reports, now lives in California. Interestingly, they don’t tell us about the American soldiers who decided to defect in the sixties. One of them even managed to leave North Korea later and wrote a book “To Tell the Truth”.
After exiting the bus we must line up in two rows, each of us is checked by the soldier. We head out to the “blue house”, passing through the building that was supposed to hold family reunions, but never did.
We enter the “blue house”, which is a conference building, and are told all conversations here are recorded (I presume, by both sides) and this is also the only place where a woman from the South works, she is a translator. No women soldiers are allowed, as North considers it to be disrespectful. This might change though, as now North Korea has imposed a mandatory 7 year military service for women too (142 cm is the minimum height requirement!) and it is only slightly less than 10 year service men have.
As the house is right in the middle of the border, the soldier tells us, if we cross in the middle, we are technically in North Korea, so everyone rushes to the other side of the room. It is strictly prohibited to take pictures outside the window. We only get a few minutes inside, during which we can pose with the South Korean guard (he looks like a figure from the wax museum!).
We are told that exiting on the other side is your own responsibility. I highly doubt that, as most likely we would be pinned down by the guard if we tried to leave the room.
The soldier tells us not to touch or leave anything here, as supposedly, he has to clean it all up, and he just wants to watch Netflix. He mentions Netflix a lot, as that probably is the only thing he can do with his free time.
He also tells us about the rules of the talks between North and South, and why mandatory breaks have been implemented every 3 hours. Turns out, there was an 11 hour meeting once, where neither of the sides would ask for a bathroom break, as this would indicate weakness.
We need to leave the room in the same manner, rows of two, and then have to stand in front of the building on the stairs, as posing for a class picture. On the other side, in North Korea, we see a guard, who is nicknamed “Bob” (“because he bobs around”, the private tells us). When we start taking pictures of him, suddenly he hides around the corner, reappearing after a few seconds. If you want to see him, be sure to position yourself closer to the middle of the stairs, as otherwise your view might be obscured by the roof of the conference building.
Some of the houses here are controlled by the North, and private tells us that their North Koreans show obscene gestures through the windows, throat slit is a popular one. Then he tells us a bit about his everyday life here, trainings with the Korean soldiers, who are much smaller (but all have black belts in taekwondo). Although they should have perfect English skills, he says conversations aren’t really there, as the language skills are not so good.
Then he take us to the souvenir shop nearby. Not only Korean marine T-shirts, caps and key-chains are on display, you can also buy wild grape wine from North Korea with some sediment (by buying which we have supported the regime, somehow we didn’t think of it then…) and some money from the North. The wine is supposedly organic, as fertilizer is too expensive in the North and those are wild grapes anyway. The book about North Korea did say that human waste is the only available fertilizer and mothers tell their children not to poop in school…
How the goods get to the DMZ, the private did not know. Once you are done with your shopping, you can go upstairs to the museum. They give you twenty minutes for everything, which is a bit more than five we got at the “blue house”, but it does remind us why we don’t particularly enjoy group tours. Here you cannot visit on your own, so it is what it is.
Before we head back to the bus, we come to see the Buddhist temple on grounds. The private specifically told us not to ring the bell, of course an American tourist does that on the first chance, and the private is right there reprimanding him. A minute later same tourist gets another remark for entering the temple with his shoes on.
When we ask our tour guide if the North side does tours like this as well, she says yes, but it is mostly the Chinese who attend, potentially because North Koreans are not allowed.
The next stop is Dorasan rail station, the last station on the South side, but “the first one on the way to the North” as the guide says. In 2007 for a brief period there were freight trains going between the both sides to Kaesong industrial complex, a joint venture of both countries, but it stopped shortly as tourist from the South was wounded, when wandering in closed area. It is only 205 km til Pyongyang from here.
Paying 1 thousand won in addition (you also get a postcard and an opportunity to stamp something for the cost), you can enter the platform. There is a clock that counts the years of separation, and now it already shows 72 years. A piece of Berlin wall is on display here as well. The station is not closed, as some other reviews say, and there is train commute to Seoul. Another tourist shop is on the first floor as well.
After visiting the station we head out for lunch, we have bulgogi – strips of beef, some rice, tomatoes and seaweed, and it costs us 10 thousand won. You can also eat kimchi (pickled cabbage with chili) but we have tried the spicy dish before and don’t feel like eating more of the extremely spicy dish. We also see some ginseng on display here.
The next stop is the Dora Observatory, where we see the propaganda village in the North through binoculars. Nice painted houses are visible on the other side, but the lights go on all at once in the evening, and supposedly only the ground keepers live there. It is quite the opposite on the South side, where farmers actively farm the land. Guide tells us they make 80 thousand dollars a year and are exempt from tax. Private in our tour says he doesn’t even make that much. There are some conditions though – curfew at 11 pm, you can’t walk anywhere else than the landmine cleared areas, you are always guarded a soldier and you must live here at least 8 months a year. They are not allowed to talk to any North Koreans and only those who had ancestors living here are allowed to stay.
Interestingly, DMZ has become a nature reserve of a kind. 4 km wide and 250 long, undisturbed land for over sixty years is a real paradise for wildlife. Some say that even tigers live here, and those are extinct in the rest of Korea. Dozens of endangered bird species nest here.
On the day of our visit to Dora Observatory it is quite foggy, so we barely see the 160 m tall flag post in the North. It was build quickly & right after South side had build 98 m tall one, and even was tallest flag-post in the world for a while. You can use some of the public binoculars for 500 won, but they work for a really short time, then you need to feed them more coins. We are especially sad we didn’t bring out long lenses here, to see a bit more.
When we arrived at the observatory, it was quite crowded, so we didn’t understand right away – what is that noise, is that music?! Yes, and it is the propaganda music from the North! Spooky sounds, sometimes music, sometimes speeches, praising Kim Jong-un, 24/7. After 11 years of silence they are back on, after South turned out theirs when two soldiers were killed in the landmine incident in 2015. And, it is true that South Korea blasts k-pop and weather reports through their speakers! The purpose is to make the soldiers on the other side listen. That’s why the North switched on theirs, so nothing can be heard. Also, North Korea jams phone signal, so there is no mobile phone reception in the area.
3rd Infiltration Tunnel
Then we head to the 3rd Infiltration tunnel, which the North dug for a sudden attack on Seoul. Before going in we watch, how the guide put it “propaganda from the South” movie, a escalated American voice tells us about the history and swears to protect the stability “forever”. We leave all our things in the locker (strictly no pictures here), put on helmets and go in. Guide warns us it is not for the claustrophobic. The tunnel is 73 meters deep, and surprisingly warm, not like the Estonian shale mine or Jeju lava tube. It is very narrow and small, so we have to hunch, cold water dripping behind the collar from the ceiling. At the end of the tunnel you can see first of the three barriers built to prevent entrance underground.
A total of four such tunnels have been discovered, and information of their existence was obtained from defectors. Multiple burr holes were drilled, filled with water and then the South waited. When explosions occurred underground, water went up, so they discovered the tunnels. Some have been found by accident. North Korea declines any allegations that tunnels are theirs, but they have been dug out in a way that all water collecting underground flows to the North. Also, the ceiling is black – some say it was covered with coal dust on purpose to mask it as coal mine, others say it blackened because of an explosion. The last tunnel was discovered far away from the others in 1990, which makes the rumors of 20 more, undiscovered tunnels to seem true, as locals have long complained about unusual sounds coming from underground. The last tunnel was whooping 145 m deep underground!
Going inside is not that hard, but helmets do come in handy. Going back is much harder, as the climb is quite steep and should not be attempted by those who are not in perfect health.
I can only agree that visiting the DMZ is an absolute must, if you are in South Korea. We were promised to see one North Korean guard, which we did, and it was truly one of the spookiest experiences one can get these days. It is surprising that such country still exists, and for Americans this is now the only opportunity to get this close to North Korea, as all travel there is banned indefinitely. Journalists are also banned from visiting, as North Korea does not issue visas for them. Visiting is a bad idea also from the ethical perspective, as in this way you will support the regime, because all tours are government organized. Coming to DMZ is one opportunity to learn more about the history of the place, and raise awareness of the regime. It is still the cold war between North and South, and while it has spurred some competition (Pyongyang build the metro first, Seoul had to follow), the accounts of defectors from the North are just horrible. Of course you get to see the version of the South in the tour. You also feel that the private leading the tour is American, so he does spend a fair share of time talking to other Americans about who has been in which states. At this moment we remember something a taxi driver mentioned in Seoul – USA never apologized for the mess they caused in Korean peninsula, and while the support has been significant, learning more about DMZ you do get the feeling there was a lot of meddling. It is not without a reason that talks in the seventies between both Koreas explicitly outlined that any unification is to be discussed only between them and without other powers involvement. But the tour does allow you to understand better why so many metro stations have bomb shelter signs in Seoul.
Driving back in the bus and watching the reed I almost jolt up in my seat when I see concealed guards watching the other side. No, just human-sized figures, hidden at the barbed fence.
*this blog post contains my opinion based on the information I got during the tour and read in the books. I cannot guarantee there are no factual errors.