A Guide to Korea's Demilitarized Zone, the Most Dangerous Border in the World
The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is a 250-kilometer-long, four-kilometer-wide stretch of land that serves as a buffer zone between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). A visit to this destination is a highly informative, if not unnerving experience that won’t soon be forgotten. So, if you’ve got a desire to explore what is often considered one of the most dangerous borders in the world, and get a peek at one of the most closed countries on the planet, here’s how to do it.
Choose your points of interest
Due to restricted civilian access, non-military personnel can only visit the DMZ on a tour. As a result, there are numerous types of tours, ranging from full-day visits and JSA-only tours to nature tours and tours led by North Korean defectors. To decide which is best for you, you should first decide which DMZ attractions you’d like to visit. The central highlights to choose from are below:
The Joint Security Area (JSA)
Located in Panmunjom, the JSA is the closest point a tourist can get to North Korea, and is often the location that visitors most associate with the Korean border. Here, you have the opportunity to physically stand in North Korea, not to mention snap a photo for proof.
Occupied by the South Korean and US military, the area is generally calm, if not a bit eerie. Visitors are given about ten minutes to watch North Korean and South Korean soldiers face off on either side of the physical border. Afterward, they are taken to the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room that straddles the Demarcation Line.
Historical artifacts, documents, and propaganda can be perused at the North Korea museum, which is also the site where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. Or, if you’d like to pick up a few souvenirs, an on-site gift shop sells North Korean items such as stamps, money, and alcohol.
Odusan Unification Observatory
Equipped with tower viewers (which can be used free of charge), the Odusan Unification Observatory provides tourists with the opportunity to get a zoomed-in glimpse of everyday North Korean life. On an average day, visitors might spot a villager fishing on the Han River, but that’s usually as exciting as things get.
Although Imjingak, or Freedom Bridge, currently connects the two Koreas, a massive barricade blocks entry to the connecting point over the river. Should the two sides ever be reconnected, this would be used as an entry point to enter and exit the North.
During the time that the North and South were conducting peace talks, North Korea began digging underground tunnels to infiltrate their southern neighbors. The tunnels were never completed and were discovered in the 1970s and ’80s. The Third Tunnel of Aggression reaches the closest to Seoul – only 44 kilometers away – and had the capacity to move some 30,000 troops and artillery per hour.
The Dora Observatory also offers tower viewer views, but of Kijong-dong, North Korea’s fake town. Built in the 1950s to entice South Koreans to move north of the border, Kijong-dong looks like any other town, with colorfully painted houses, schools, and even a hospital. From visual observations from the South, the village has remained uninhabited with windowless, incomplete buildings since its construction.
Not far from the observatory is Dorasan Station, a train station has a completed train line that runs all the way to Pyongyang. Though the North cooperated in its completion, it has never been used. It is hoped that, when and if the Koreas are unified, the line will be used to connect the two nations.
Select a tour that’s right for you
Once you’ve figured out which highlights you’d like to see, you can better select the tour that’s right for you.
When selecting a tour, pick one that fits your schedule. Some leave quite early and return to Seoul in the afternoon, while others depart later and return in the evening. It should also be noted that several nationalities, including South Koreans and Chinese nationals, face restricted access to the JSA, so be sure to check with the tour operator ahead of time.
For a full list of operators running DMZ tours, as well as the cost, times, and highlights of each, click here.
Important Points About DMZ Tours
- Most DMZ tours require a reservation at least two to five days in advance, so be sure to book ahead.
- If visiting the JSA, you must sign a waiver agreeing that the tour operator cannot be held responsible for accident, injury or…death. As scary as that sounds, visitors can take comfort in knowing that these tours have been held daily for years, and you will be accompanied by military escorts at the border.
- You must bring your passport for DMZ tours, which will be checked at the beginning of the tour and again by army personnel on arrival at the JSA.
- Military policy requires all tour participants to display a “neat and presentable appearance.” In other words, this means no ripped jeans, athletic clothing, flip-flops, or clothing with profane or provocative text. These rules are strictly enforced, as North Korean soldiers have been known to take photos for the use in false propaganda to show that other countries are too poor to afford proper attire.
- Should tensions rise at the border, tours can be canceled unexpectedly. Therefore, you are not guaranteed entry to the UNCMAC at the JSA, nor the ability to take photos on the northern side of the border.
- Partaking in the DMZ tour allows yourself to gain much more depth on a humanitarian crisis that the world does not know enough about. If you have the chance to do this trip, it is highly recommended. Not to mention, you earn yourself bragging rights for being able to say you’ve stepped into North Korea!
- Speaking of photos, your tour guide will inform you when and where it’s permissible to take photographs. If you snap away in prohibited areas, you may have to hand over your film, memory card, or even your camera.
- Although the DMZ is, in fact, a tourist attraction, it’s not a theme park, and visitors should be mindful (and respectful) of this. Especially inside the JSA, tourists will stand just meters away from armed North Korean soldiers. Something as harmless as a hand gesture could be perceived as a provocative action and could put your and your fellow tour-goers’ lives in danger. Therefore, it is imperative that visitors follow the instructions of the tour operators and on-site military personnel.