What to Expect from a Trip to the North Korean Border and DMZ
With the recent news that North Korea and South Korea are meeting and have a plan to end the ongoing “war” between the two countries, I thought this would be a good time to talk about my visit to the DMZ when I visited South Korea and what you can expect on your trip there.
If you’re unfamiliar with what exactly the DMZ is, it’s stands for “Military Demilitarized Zone”. And it is sort of buffer between North Korea and South Korea.
I’m sure you have questions – Is it safe? Should I bring my kids? Why would you want to go there? Yes, No, I’ll tell you.
Of all the places I’ve visited on my journeys, visiting the DMZ is one of the more bizarre place I’ve been. I’m not sure if there’s any place quite like it.
If you want a more in depth profile and history on the DMZ, check out the KTO website.
Before You Go
If you’re staying in a hotel, you’re likely to find a ton of brochures advertising trips to the DMZ. Take a look at each of them, compare times, prices, and offerings. There are a lot of different places you can see, so check what you really want to see and what fits your budget. It’s unlikely to be a cheap trip (I think ours was about $130 each) but it will be a one of a kind and unique trip that you won’t forget. And if you can’t decide, ask the concierge! Whatever you decide, plan well ahead. These tours can and will sell out. You can also find some tours online before you go if you want to be super organized and prepared (and you should be).
If you have a young child on hand, they are not invited unfortunately. Because of where you’re going and the serious of the situation, children are not allowed.
Be sure to dress appropriately. This not only means dressing for the weather (it was COLD when we went in November) but dress conservatively. You do not want to be singled out for inappropriate attire. Try to be respectful and not cause an international incident.
PACK YOUR PASSPORT! You never know when you’re going to need it. This is an active military area and there will be security checks. And as such, tours can be canceled at the last minute. Your plans aren’t going to trump potential aggressions from the north, so be aware. In fact a few days after we were there, the North shelled one of the islands in the South (Yeonpyeong). So there’s that.
Pack lightly. You’re not going to need a ton of things, maybe a small light backpack. Our tour fed us, so I assume it’s a common thing. At the very least you will make a couple of stops where you can purchase some food.
And first, a preview in pictures to look at!
You’re going to be leaving early in the morning. Be sure you get a good nights rest the night before. I know you’re probably going to be thrown off by jetlag, but do your best. You might have some time for a short nap on the bus ride up north. Along the way you’ll pass through miles of what seems to be remote, uninhabited land. Keep in mind you’re less than 40 miles from Seoul. There are a few villages out here in the DMZ, mostly farming communities. Also landmines.
Your first stop will have you switching from the large tour bus you probably came in on and into a tinier bus filled with strangers (unless you’ve got a large group with you). While you’re stopped here, there’s the usual tourist traps, and for some reason carnival rides. Probably don’t need to take part in either of these things. I do recommend you take a walk around the Peace Park, and take in everything around you, including the and Korean War Veterans Memorial.
What NOT To Do
- Do not dress provactively, or in any manner that will cause you to stand out.
- Do not point at anyone
- Do not cross the line that says not to cross it
- Do not take pictures of things you shouldn’t take pictures of
- Do not stand too close the the guard inside of the JSA
- Do not misunderstand the seriousness of your surroundings
- Do not go into the 3rd infiltration tunnel if you are remotely out of shape, or have bad knees
The JSA (Joint Security Area)/Panmunjeom
This is the main “attraction” of the tour. You’ll see the JSA which straddles the line between North Korea and South Korea. Before you go out you’ll be expected to sit through an important slide show to learn about what you’re going to see and what you can and cannot do. There’s no test involved. You’ll be able to enter one of the buildings they use for meetings, and even cross over to North Korea (within the confines of the building). When you’re in the building, they will warn you not to get too close to the guard, as he will take it as a sign of aggression and he will take you down!. Even within the building, things can be unsafe. Once, when the South Korean soldier was locking the door on the Northern side, soldiers from the North flung the door open and tried to snatch the South’s soldier. Now when they lock up, a second soldier has to hold onto the first to keep this from happening. Wild. You’ll gaze across the JSA into the North while a North Korean soldier stares at you with his binoculars. Weird. You’ll learn about the Recreation Building where no recreating happens, only rude gestures and faces at important dignitaries.
The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel
First off, there are no pictures of the tunnel itself. Strictly forbidden. Second, THIS IS PHYSICALLY TAXING. You’re going to be walking up and down a 30 degree slope and be hunched over for a good portion of it (if you’re even slightly above average height).
So with those warnings aside, if you think you can manage it, I recommend you do. **Update** there MAY be an operable funicular available now to get you up and down. You’ll still be hunched over, sweating at the bottom, but this alleviates a ton of exertion. We didn’t have such a luxury when we went. It was there, but not taking anyone anywhere. Probably because it was so tiring!
This tunnel is one of 4 KNOWN tunnels the North had excavated to be able to sneak into South Korea for various nefarious purposes. They have no idea how many there truly are, perhaps up to 20 more.
Dorasan Station is on the line that used to connect North Korea and South Korea. One day the hope of the full railway can be reopened to regular service between the two halves of the peninsula. Right now they’re mostly used to transport tourists from Seoul to Dorasan station (if they’re not shut down).
This is a long tour, and you’re going to get hungry. So here you go! We were brought to a place that had the standard Korean fair. Not the best we had all trip, but we were hungry and it was good enough. You’ll also get a chance to sit with some of your fellow travelers, like Henrik from Finland!
While I have attempted to inject some levity into our trip, you should understand that this area, and situation are very serious and of major importance to the people of Korea. It has not been that long since the peninsula was divided and older people lost loved ones either through war, or separation. Even now many lives are lost when people attempt to flee the northern part of the country. And often even if they are successful, the family members they have left behind end up losing their lives as punishment. The area differs from going to a museum to learn about something terrible that happened at some point in history in that it is a living, breathing reminder of what is currently happening right next to where you are standing. The Western world often downplays the situation in the country as they do not understand it, or simply do not care. But do understand it is a complicated situation that cannot be easily solved. But hopefully one day it can come to a peaceful conclusion.
To learn a bit more check out the Korean Tourism Organization website.