Looking over the Demilitarised Zone into North Korea was surreal, fascinating, and a little scary – especially when I heard distant gunfire! – but more on that later.
The Demilitarised Zone is the zone between North and South Korea. Known as the DMZ – and pronounced the American way, “D M Zee” (if you say “D M Zed” you will get strange looks!). In the Korean War in the 1950s, an armistice was reached in 1953 where both sides agreed not to have any military in the 2km directly in front of the front-line, thereby creating a 4km gap between them. The front-line itself is called the Military Demarcation Line – we got confused over all the terminology! It is fair to say that although the 2km South Korean DMZ is demilitarised, the area just outside of that is heavily militarised. There are South Korean and US army bases there.
We took a tour from Seoul. There are tours that encompass the JSA (Joint Security Area) and tours that don’t. The JSA has the blue building on the frontline and probably the most heightened tension. It would have been good to go but the JSA tours are more expensive, require much more advance booking, and leave Seoul much earlier in the morning. We went on the non-JSA tour, partly because we had left it too late to book the JSA one, we prefer a later start in the morning (hotel pickup was mid-morning) and also we read that JSA tours are often cancelled without notice. Our tour would encompass the other sights: Freedom Bridge, the Third Infiltration Tunnel, the Dora Observatory, and Dorasan Station. More on each below.
There are also various rules for the tours; you must dress fairly smartly, or at least not scruffily. This is apparently because North Korea takes photos of tourists and would use any photos of scruffy tourists as evidence that the west is poor for their propaganda. Therefore the rules are no ripped jeans, no slogans etc. Most importantly, you must take your passport. We knew we wouldn’t get into the DMZ without it. What we didn’t know until we were on the bus and almost at the destination, is that if anyone in the tour group forgets their passport, the entire group will be turned away! I would have expected the tour leader would check passports before we left Seoul, but no – luckily everyone had theirs!
I was nervous when we left Seoul as this is no joke; although the DMZ is by definition demilitarised, this is a real life cold- war zone guarded by real soldiers with real guns. Although it is considered safe enough for tourists to visit on tours, there have been incidents over the years. There are landmines and the locals are paid danger money to live there. So I wanted to go but I was a little nervous. This was helped when some American tourists got on the bus and immediately asked “Excuse me, do you have Wifi?”. This made me smile and normalised the situation somewhat.
The road there was lined with razor-wire and intermittent guard-towers on the side next to the river, to prevent any North Koreans crossing the river to South Korea. We weren’t allowed to take photos but you can get the idea from Google Streetview:
First stop on our tour was Imjingak Park which is 7km away from the Military Demarcation Line, ie. just outside the DMZ. Rather bizarrely there is an amusement park here, alongside a visitors centre with a shop and toilets, and you can go up on the roof to look over South Korea (you can’t see North Korea from there). There is also Freedom Bridge, which is a former railway bridge which goes across the Imjin River, which South Korean solders and Prisoners of War crossed when they came home from North Korea. This is also confusing as it there is a nearby Bridge of Freedom which tourists can today walk across, but which is just an access bridge. It wasn’t at all clear which was which! There is also an old steam engine here, riddled with bullet holes from the war, and a large monument called Mangbaeddan which commemorates separated families (when the DMZ was created, families were separated on each side of the line so are still apart today).
After this we crossed the Civilian Control Line into the highly militarised zone outside the DMZ. This was interesting as there were chicanes in the road to slow down any vehicle, and the tour guide had to produce a list of our names and passport numbers. Then a solider boarded the bus and checked all of our passports matches our faces. The soldier looked really young and the tour guide explained that there is military conscription in South Korea from the age of 18.
The tour is confusing since you will be told “we are inside the DMZ” – but you’re not. No-one can go into the DMZ. The tours cross the Civilian Control Line into the highly militarised zone outside the DMZ. You can’t cross the southern limit to enter the DMZ, but you can see across the DMZ from the observatory. And you certainly can’t cross the Military Demarcation Line which separates North and South Korea. Therefore we were confused when looking at a fence – which fence is that? what zone is this? etc.
Once inside what I call the militarised zone, next stop on the tour was the Third Infiltration Tunnel. This is a 1.6km tunnel dug by North Korea which goes under South Korea soil, allegedly dug to facilitate a surprise attack on South Korea. As the name suggests, this is the third such tunnel found – there were actually four in total. North Korea denies this and explained they were coal mining, and painted the walls of the tunnel black to look like coal.
Today you can don a hard-hat and walk down a steep slope into the tunnel. Again it is confusing what’s what, so the large professionally excavated steep slope section was dug by South Korea to allow tourists access to the actual tunnel, which is the cave-like, small, damp section underneath. I made it down, but felt claustrophobic in the small space and was a bit freaked out that the ceiling looked like it was being held up with scaffolding so I walked back up and didn’t go down to the end of the tunnel. There are benches to sit down on as it’s a hot, steep and relentless climb, but achievable for someone with average fitness.
My husband saw a rollercoaster type car where all the tourists are whisked off backwards into the tunnel like a theme park ride, which seems bizarre, but a quicker way to visit! At the top is a giftshop, toilets, and various statues.
There were also some tourist props to have photos with, such as a fake fence, a fake guard and a fake-tunnel you can pose with, which seemed slightly bizarre given where we were – this isn’t Disneyland! There is also a cinema showing a very propaganda-like video of events from South Korea’s perspective.
Next stop on the tour was the bit I had been looking forward to – the Dora Observatory. This is where you get to look into North Korea itself, which is really why I came. When walking up to the observatory I saw a soldier standing completely still, so much so that I thought he was a statue. I stared at him, trying to work out if he was real or not, and he turned his head to look at me which gave me a shock! I was a bit freaked out now we were close to North Korea. I then heard distant gunfire which made me even more nervous. No-one else seemed to bat an eyelid. I asked the guide and she said it was probably a training exercise. And then we went up to the Observatory itself:- fascinating – I wanted to take my time but the guide said we only had 5 minutes?! We took photos and used the free binoculars to see more. We were lucky that it was a fairly clear day so you could see right across the DMZ to the nearest North Korean town, Kaesong Industrial Area. You could also see the North Korean village in the DMZ (both countries have a small village within the DMZ; South Korea’s is called Freedom Village and North Korea’s is called Peace Village. They both have big flagpoles bearing their respective flags).
Finally we then visited Dorasan Station which is a large train station all set up and ready to go, but with no trains! There is a departures area for trains to Pyongyang, but currently these don’t run! They pointed out that one day, once trains are running, you could travel by train from London to Seoul!
After this we headed back to Seoul, but stopped at a Ginseng centre where we had a tour telling us about Ginseng – a natural health marvel apparently. It was really a commercial thing as they wanted to sell you this. Some tourists skipped this by being dropped at a subway station on the outskirts of Seoul. It was ironic as those of us who tired of the pressure to buy went outside; the french lady having a cigarette, and me having a chocolate bar. So much for the health benefits! 🙂
- Food. Take snacks, or eat a big breakfast beforehand. You don’t get lunch provided, and you don’t get any time allocated to eating lunch. There was also a “no eating on the bus” rule so the guy who brought fast-food on the bus was made to wait until the next stop to eat it! We had a good-sized breakfast, took some cereal bars, water, and chocolate, and then had a big dinner when we got back to Seoul.
- Remember to book in advance – all tours need to be booked in advance but the JSA ones need to be booked several days in advance. We booked 24 hours before online (on Trazy, a Korean booking website) and it was fine.
- Remember your passport – or you and your tour group won’t be let in and you won’t get a refund.
- Dress smartly. I took a dress and cardigan and my husband had black trousers and a shirt. It’s possible we may end up on propaganda, but we tried our best! 😉
Overall I would recommend a DMZ tour, but I did breathe a sigh of relief when we got back to Seoul safely and we discussed it over a well-deserved celebratory meal!
next blog: Food in Seoul, South Korea.
previous blog: Lantern Festival, Seoul, South Korea.