Whether you are a “dark tourist”, a patriot or just eternally curious, then this is for you; a day trip into the DMZ, where you actually get to step foot into North Korea.
It was a very painful awakening when our alarms went off collectively at 06:00. Suddenly, a night of delicious sticky fried chicken and grapefruit soju didn’t seem like such a good plan (it was yummy though, read about it here). Four short, paranoid hours sleep didn’t equate to a happy morning. However, excitement was running high. This, our second day in Seoul, was the day of our tour north to the DMZ and North Korea.
We travelled to our pick up point, a subway stop on line 1 and prepared for tour bus roulette. Were we the first pick up; allowing us first choice of the seats but meaning we were an hour’s sleep short? Or were we last; allowing us more sleep but leaving us with separate seats or the middle back seat (surely the worst seat on a tour).
Turns out we were the first to board the bus and so spent the next hour and a half going between guest houses and hotels slowly accumulating fellow DMZers before heading north towards the border.
An Introduction to the Korean War
At the end of WWII Korea underwent the same kind of division that affected Europe, with the Soviet Union occupying the Northern regions, and allied forces in the South. The line that split the country was called the 38th parallel. The onset of the Cold War meant the two sides failed to reunite as relations between the US and the USSR worsened and they both claimed they should possess the peninsular.
After two years of bloody skirmishes the North made a huge move to take control in 1950 and a three year war ensued. The Chinese backed North (also supported by the Soviet Union) almost won, but the newly formed United Nations (led by the USA) pushed them back. Eventually an armistice was signed in 1953 and the two countries have been in a state of stalemate ever since.
So What is the DMZ?
As part of the armistice, a new border was created, which unlike the 38th parallel wasn’t just a straight line. For two kilometres in either direction is the demilitarised zone (DMZ). This doesn’t mean there are no soldiers, but rather there is a strict agreement on the number of soldiers, weapons and where they may go.
Our Trip Begins
We drove North from Seoul towards the DMZ and our guide Lina introduced herself and the main story of the Korean conflict. Lina was a wonderful guide. She was bubbly and informative. As a young woman she doesn’t have personal memories of the war but she has still been affected.
Arriving at the DMZ
To enter into the DMZ, we had to cross the reunification bridge where we had to show our ID to a soldier. This was quite a casual exchange and so calmed any jingling nerves.
The bus pulled into a large car park and we were shown into a small cinema. It was propaganda time! I don’t know why, but I hadn’t expected it to be this way on the South side of the border but it was an excellent piece of film.
A loud American voice over listed atrocities committed along with dramatic music and fake explosion graphics. There was also a strange bit about how nature was flourishing in the DMZ and would “…forever, until reunification”. I know that they were trying to make it all seem less scary, and see the silver lining but we were probably a bit too cynical for it all.
Next to the cinema was a collection of reunification statues and monuments. This was my favourite.
The Third Tunnel
Next we walked across the car park to “the third tunnel”. This is the third (duh!) of the infiltration tunnels that were discovered leading from North Korea into South Korea.
A defector from the North gave intelligence that these tunnels existed and investigations started from there. The North had been claiming that dynamite blasts had been for mining, and so the South decided to use the dynamite to their advantage. They dug 107 bore holes and filled them with water. The dynamite blast forced the water to erupt like a whale’s blow hole and this gave away the tunnels location. They dug an interception tunnel down to meet it, and it’s this that we now descended.
You are not permitted to take anything down with you, so I have no photos from underground.
Down to The Third Tunnel
First you grab a couple of hard hats and then start the walk down. The tunnel descends at quite a steep angle and it’s only when you see people coming the opposite direction, puffing and red faced, that you start to wonder how far down you’re going. It’s 350m down, enough to make you slightly wobbly legged.
Once you are down there you can see the bore hole and then you are instructed to go down the infiltration tunnel itself. The walls here are much rougher and it’s a much tighter squeeze, but scaffolding and a floor have been constructed to make it easier. Karl and I aren’t the tallest human beings, but even we occasionally bumped our heads. Suddenly the hard hats made sense. Taller people were constantly banging their helmets against the ceiling. At the end of this section you can peer through one barrier, and to the next. There are three in total so that’s almost a glimpse into the North.
Dora Observation Point
Your next view of North Korea is a short bus ride away. There is one observation point open to the public. Here you can gaze across the DMZ and catch sight of not only the propaganda villages (more on those in a moment) but also the city of Kaesong.
Apparently there is a statue of one of North Korea’s leaders far in the distance, but only the eagle-eyed will see that. If you haven’t brought your own binoculars, don’t panic, there are coin operated versions (like you see at the British seaside).
It’s a very noisy place to stand. Several times a day, the North Koreans will play their propaganda broadcasts. These usually include traditional music and praise for the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. In return, South Korea belts out a local radio station full of K-Pop and overly enthusiastic, seemingly hilarious DJs. We struggled to hear the North Korean patriotism but the wind was on South Korea’s side and it was carried away on the breeze.
As well as propaganda broadcasting, each side has what is known as a propaganda village. Farmers live and work in the DMZ, but only in these two designated spots. On the South Korean side, to apply to live there, you must:
- have ancestors come from the area.
- spend eight months of the year here.
- stick to the paths that have been cleared, to avoid land mines.
- be accompanied by a UN soldier whenever you are out.
- never communicate in any way with the North Koreans (even when they are farming just metres from you)
So why would you want to live here? As well as reclaiming your family’s lost land, the residents pay zero tax. It must be an incredibly strange life with propaganda blaring over your lunch and a curfew in place every night.
Dorasan Train Station
In the 1990s, a policy called the sunshine policy improved relations with the North so much that they started doing business together. KIC (Kaesong Industrial Company) traded goods with the South through the DMZ. In 2008, a fancy new train station opened to help with exchange of goods, and a train line opened North to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.
However, in 2008, a South Korean tourist was shot when she wandered into a restricted zone and the ties between the two sides worsened significantly. All trade halted and the station was shut.
It is now empty of all train traffic North. The place looks like a film set; shiny unused customs points and an unused ticket desk. You can stamp something with North Korean border stamps and purchase a ticket to stand on the Pyongyang platform.
In one corner there is a souvenir shop and one thing caught my eye. They are selling wild grape wine from North Korea. This is one of the only places to purchase anything from North Korea and so I was sorely tempted. When I picked up the bottle, however, it was full of sediment and Mr Fluskey gave me such a disapproving look, that I put it down again.
Opposite the shop stood a grand piano. The strings had all been replaced by barbed wire to represented the discordant relationship between the Korea’s. We stood reverently behind the ropes but our tour guide bounded up and merrily thudded on the keys for us to hear.
This is where things got really surreal. There had been an atmosphere of slight solemnity over the tourists despite their excitement, but here, things are so mixed up. Not only are there monuments but exhibitions, restaurants and a fun fair!? Apparently it is sometimes called the Imjingak resort, and you can see why. This is where dark tourism becomes mass tourism. The whole thing was built in the 1970s. It is the furthest North that South Korean’s can travel legally.
After a delicious lunch of bulgogi (you can read about it here) we took a look around. We started by exploring the park full of monuments.
A collection of memorials around a small park commemorating those that were lost during the conflict. These range from small tablet style monuments to these huge statues.
The Roof Terrace
Back around to the main building and we went to the roof for the view. It is up on the third floor and from here you can see across the whole resort. It has all been decked to make it easier to get around and the views are superb.
Mangbaedda Alter (The Peace Monument)
Cross the car park and you arrive at the main monument for those who have been separated. Every New Year’s Day and Korean Thanksgiving (Chuseok), it is thronged by those who come to commemorate their loved ones. They are able to bow towards the North for their lost family, their ancestors and home towns.
The Bridge of Freedom
This bridge played a large part in the armistice agreements. Thousands of prisoners of war were traded across it. In fact, this foot bridge was built expressly for that purpose, all other land being dangerous and the bridges long destroyed during the war. These POWs walked home.
We also stopped to look at the brightly coloured ribbons fluttering on the barbed wire fence opposite. These are placed by those who have their ancestral family in the North and they display wishes, hopes and prayers. The rainbow of colour belies what a moving tribute this is.
Next to the park we had seen a train engine. We were astonished at the restoration work that they had done. We had read that the engine was riddled with bullet holes and left to rust…turns out it was the wrong one!
Just North of the bridge of freedom sits the actual train. It is pockmarked with hundreds of bullet holes and shell marks. It is on display to demonstrate the horror of war. I find it amazing to think that people underwent that kind of barrage on a daily basis.
As well as this, they are extending the old railway bridge out over the valley so you can walk across towards the North (this costs £2.50/$3 more). There were also a few more exhibitions, one of war photos and one about the proliferation of nature in the DMZ.
Just around the corner is a temple, a spot to sit and contemplate, away from the crowds.
We enjoyed wandering around, and even found tie for some dessert, before it was time to make our way to our new coach.
During lunch we had all been given a seat number for what we will call the breakaway coach. Some people were heading back to Seoul and so these coaches were a combination of all the tour groups that had descended upon Imjingak. After a quick toilet stop, we boarded the breakaway coach and took our assigned seats.
The soldiers who work in and around the DMZ are all taller than the average South Korean (they must be over 5’6″) have excellent spoken English and are awfully handsome. According to Wikipedia, they must also be a black belt in taekwondo or judo but I can’t confirm that as I didn’t get a chance to ask. This is not only to impress impressionable lady tourists but is another weapon in the propaganda arsenal.
We were welcomed to the camp by a very good looking young soldier with a strong American accent. It was time for another film. This one served a nice dollop of bias but also took us through the rules of entering the JSA.
Basically, follow instructions, wear clothes that cover you up and don’t even THINK of communicating with anyone on the other side. We all signed waivers to the effect that if we were shot, it was our own fault and then it was time to jump onto two new coaches. On the breakaway coach, we had all been screened and had our passports thoroughly checked. Everyone had to leave their bags on the breakaway coach and now we boarded two new coaches ready to drive into the JSA.
Entering The Joint Security Area
As we drove through yet another checkpoint the atmosphere on the coach got more excitable. People craned their necks to see the land around us. We drove past tank defences and a frisson shuddered through the tourists. In the distance you could see South Korea’s propaganda village.
My early morning caught up with me and my head dropped to my chest. I missed the rest of the five minute drive.
The JSA Main Spot
When we arrived the two coaches formed two lines and we walked single file behind our guide. One half was to spend five minutes on two steps outside South Korea’s building facing North Korea’s whilst the rest of us entered the central blue hut, the Military Armistice Conference Room. There are five huts, three blue and two white. The blue ones are maintained by South Korea and the white ones by the North. The central one is the only one that the public can enter and you can do so on a tour from the South or the North.
The JSA used to be an entirely neutral area, but in the 1970s, two American military personal were killed. After this, the Military Demarcation Line was drawn through the middle. This goes through the buildings where negotiations are held. Each hut has line markers through it, even going along the middle of the meeting tables.
We were informed there was a strict five minute time limit. We entered and spent a little time wandering the line between South and North Korea. It’s the only point where you can cross this line. It was a teeny bit thrilling. We took a super awkward photo with the UN guards who stand guard in front of the door out to the North’s side of the JSA. We were back of the queue for photos and the guard was insisting that five minutes were up. Pushing our luck maybe!?
We then had our five minutes outside. The group was not allowed to take a photo of the large South Korean building we were stood in front of, or to the left and right of the watch towers, only North to the building opposite.
Mr Fluskey and I were at the end of the line and so were in the wrong spot to catch a photo of the one North Korean guard on show. Our military guide informed us that they nickname him Bob. That’s my go-to nickname too! If you want to get a shot of Bob, place yourself to the centre or the right of the steps when it’s your- turn for the photo session.
I was surprised not see any American soldiers here but found out that it has been run by the South Korean’s alone since 2004.
Back to the Visitor Centre
We were taken back and given time to explore the small museum they have. We found out more detail about the armistice and things that happened in and around the DMZ. There was a grizzly exhibit about an axe murder that took place in the 1970s when North Korean guards attacked South Korean ones.
This was not a cheap tour by anyone’s standards but I really feel like it was worth every penny. I learned so much about the conflict, it’s background and aftermath. I was impressed at how much we saw, it was pretty non-stop. Originally I meant to book with another company but seeing their huge coach made me very happy that I had booked the tour with a smaller company. I would recommend taking this trip 100%.
Booking – I booked through Viator, and the tour was called “Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and JSA Panmunjom Tour from Seoul“. You can click the link to see the exact tour we took.
Cost – Around £100p/p depending on the exchange rate.
What to take –
- Passport – This is vital to enter the DMZ. Without it you won’t get passed the reunification bridge.
- Clothes – Respectable clothing is required. Collared tops with no cleavage. Trousers and skirts must cover the knees. No sportswear. No ripped jeans or the like. Shoes must be closed, no sandals. There can’t be any offensive slogans. They really do a clothing check before you enter the JSA.
- Sun cream/ water – if it’s sunny.
- Camera – You wouldn’t want to miss out on those all important snaps.
- Pillow -It is a long day and you may want a snooze on the way back, or just to ease the pain of a long coach journey on your back.
- Passport – I’m going to say it again because it is SO important!!