When we visited Korea last year, we absolutely wanted to visit the DMZ. We did tremendous research about the best way to visit the DMZ and the best DMZ tour. What we didn’t know at that time was that the inter-Korean summit would sabotage our plans. Our tour was canceled because of the meeting between the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.
The tour looked really promising and is another reason to go back to South Korea in the future.
Here’s everything we learned from our research.
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What’s the DMZ
In order to completely understand what the DMZ is all about we will start with some history.
The complete Korean peninsula on which both North and South Korea are currently located was annexed by Japan in 1910. The Japanese treated Korea as a colony. The interests of the Koreans were completely subordinate to the interests of Japan.
Japan was defeated by the Allies at the end of the second world war in 1945. At that time the Soviet Union had occupied the Northern part of Korea and the United States took control of the Southern part of the Peninsula.
Read also: 7 days in Korea, the perfect itinerary.
The intention of the two superpowers was to create a temporary separation between the 2 parts. Plans existed to create a united and independent Korea in 5 years but things turned out differently.
The Cold War ensured that there was no agreement to hold elections for the whole of Korea.
The differences in politics drove the 2 parts further apart instead of coming to each other.
In 1948 the independent Republic of Korea was established in the American zone. In the same year, the Communist Democratic Korean People’s Republic (North Korea) was founded in the north.
Two years later the Northern army invaded the South with the aim of uniting the two Koreas into one communist state. This was the start of a 3-year-long civil war that claimed more than 2 million victims.
Initially, the Northern army succeeded in overrunning 90% of the South but they were fought back by US-led reinforcements sent by the UN.
At their turn, they crossed the border and made plans to conquer the whole North, against the will of China that launched a counter-attack.
It took until July 27, 1953, before the Armistice Agreement was signed.
The two parties took long to negotiate where the new border should be but in the end, it was decided that the border remained more or less where it had been all the time.
The new border diagonally crosses the 38th latitude and was widened with the creation of a four-kilometer-wide weapons-free buffer zone between the states, known as the DMZ.
The war left its traces and further perpetuated the division of Korea leading to a permanent alliance between South Korea and the United States and the establishment of a US base in South Korea.
There has been a truce since then but officially the 2 countries are still at war with each other. We read about how you can literally feel the tension at the border where the armies of both countries are facing each other.
In other parts of South Korea, such as Busan, you do not notice much of the war except that foreign navigation systems do not work because the GPS reception is blocked.
Recently both countries have done a considerable effort to ease their relations. At the Korean summit in May 2018, they have vowed to officially end the war within a year.
Since then several other meetings have taken place between both parties as well as a historic meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in June. That was the first time that the sitting leaders of these countries spoke in person.
It would be great news if Korea would finally be reunited!
Over time the DMZ will hopefully transition into a more amicable place but nothing has changed for the time being.
It may be one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders but it’s also one of the most visited tourist attractions in Korea. The DMZ welcomes more than 1.2 million foreign travelers each year, according to the Korea Tourism Organization.
Why visit the DMZ
The DMZ is an interesting place to visit and a perfect way to learn more about Korean history and the current situation of separation between North and South Korea.
The guided tours are very educational and some tours have a North Korean defector as a tour guide who can give you more insight about how life is on the other side of the border.
It is at this point one of the few still active remnants of the cold war and that makes it extra special.
Americans and South Koreans are not allowed to travel into North Korea, for them this will be the closest they can get to this isolated country. And despite the fact that other nationalities are allowed to travel to the country, there are not many who do it.
The DMZ is described as one of the most volatile regions in the world and it is a border post that has torn thousands of families apart and still holds them hostage in their “new” country. It feels strange that at the same time it is one of the top tourist attractions in this country.
We wondered if we would not feel guilty that we as a tourist came to look at a place that is the source of so much misery for other people.
What convinced us is that we believe that, by showing this to people, hopefully, the following generations will learn from the mistakes of the past.
What is the difference between the DMZ and the JSA
With regard to the tours, there is a distinction between the DMZ and the JSA tours in Korea.
JSA refers to the Joint Security Area, this is as close as you can get to North Korea.
The JSA is what most people probably think about when they think about the Korean border. This is the area with the blue barracks that are used for all the negotiations between the North and the South.
This is an iconic picture of the JSA but things may be different today. One of the first things that North and South Korea agreed upon was to clear the JSA of all weapons and military. This disarmament was completed in October 2018.
The good news is that they also decided to preserve the JSA in its current state.
Later on, in this article, we discuss in more depth the different points of interest that DMZ and JSA DMZ tours cover.
Who can visit the DMZ
Everybody can join the DMZ tours but at this point, certain restrictions are still in place regarding the JSA.
Since the JSA has been disarmed the expectation is that these restrictions will disappear in the near future.
Until that is a fact, these nationalities can visit the JSA but will need to provide a scan of their passport at the time of booking a tour.
Albania – Afghanistan – Algeria – Azerbaijan – Bangladesh – Bahrain – Belarus – China – Cuba – Egypt – Estonia – Georgia – Hong Kong – Iran – Iraq – India – Indonesia – Jordan – Kazakhstan – Kuwait – Kyrgyzstan – Latvia – Lebanon – Libya – Lithuania – Malaysia – Morocco – Moldova – Nigeria – North Korea – Oman – Pakistan – Qatar – Russia – Saudi Arabia – Somalia – Sudan – Syria – Taiwan – Tajikistan – Turkmenistan – Tunisia – Ukraine – United Arab Emirates – Uzbekistan – Vietnam – Yemen
Visitors with a European, American or Australian nationality do not have any restrictions to visit the JSA.
Children must be accompanied by their parents for both the JSA as well as the DMZ tours.
Some tour companies require that children are at least 10 years old before they can participate in a JSA tour. If you’re planning on doing a DMZ or DMZ/JSA tour with small children we advise you to check with the tour company.
Things to know when visiting the DMZ
The DMZ tours don’t run on Monday and Korean holidays ( except Korean’s New year and Thanksgiving day). If the Korean holiday happens to be during a weekend, there is a chance that the DMZ tours will run anyway.
We cover an alternative DMZ tour that you can do if your only chance is to visit the DMZ would be a Monday. More about this tour later.
Things you should bring
A current valid passport is required for both the DMZ as well as JSA DMZ tour. You have to take your passport with you. Without your passport, you won’t be allowed to join the tour.
A dress code applies to visit the JSA.
The dress code is expected to disappear now that the disarmament of the JSA is a fact but for the time being, we would advise you to stick to the dress code or to check with your tour operator to confirm that what you will be wearing is OK.
This is the dress code:
- No Shorts
- Skirts/dresses need to be at least knee length
- No sandals, flip-flop or slippers
- No t-shirts: must be collared shirts
- Civilian clothes preferred
- Jeans accepted with no holes (no ripped jeans)
- No tank tops
- No exercise clothes
- No clothing with militarily styled prints
- No stretch pants/tights
The reason that the dress code is in place has nothing to do with security as most would think.
The dress code came after it appeared that North Korea used photos of “sloppy” dressed foreigners to use them in their propaganda. The North Korean government used the photos to showcase the poor state of the other countries.
For this same reason, it is not allowed to wave to the North Korean guards. Images of foreigners waving to North Korean guards have been used in propaganda and have been framed as people who wanted to defect to the communist state.
Codes of conduct
There is still a strict code of conduct in place as we write this article. You mustn’t wave, point or in any other way signal to the North Korean guards.
It’s also not allowed to take pictures without prior permission. The guides will tell you what you can and cannot take pictures of.
You must at all times stay with your guide and the military escorts and comply with all the instructions given by your guide and the military.
The disarmament will result in a more relaxed code of conduct in the future.
Most interesting points of interests
The most interesting sights are the Joint Security Area, the Freedom Bridge, the Infiltration Tunnels and the Mount Odu Observatory.
The Joint Security Area (JSA)
Located in Panmunjom, the JSA is the closest point a tourist can get to North Korea without getting arrested or shot.
Here you’ll have a chance to physically stand in North Korea. It is also the only spot of the DMZ, where the South and North Korean soldiers face each other.
The JSA area is occupied by the South Korean and US military.
Bill Clinton repeatedly called this border post the scariest place on earth but it is touristy at the same time. There is even a gift shop selling original items from North Korea, including stamps, money, and wine.
A visit to the JSA zone usually starts in Camp Bonifas.
This is a United Nations Command military post that houses the United Nations Command Security Battalion of the Joint Security Area whose primary mission is to monitor and enforce the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953.
Here you will usually also be given a 20-minute briefing by an American soldier explaining the rules and possible dangers.
There are quite a few rules you should follow so listen carefully. You cannot take any loose items with you, if you bring a coat you have to wear it all the time (you cannot hang it over your arm), you will also have to walk to the actual border in “formation” and have to set up in rows, etc.
At this point, you’ll also be signing a waiver that absolves South Korea, the UN, and the USA in case any incidents will arise. The waiver explicitly states that the visitor’s’ safety is not guaranteed in the event of unanticipated complications.
A standard formality because in recent years there have been no accidents and these tours are done on a daily basis.
This document also provides more information about photo privileges, specifically when and where you’re allowed to take pictures.
Once everybody has signed the waiver a tour bus brings you to the freedom house.
Here two South Korean soldiers of a special unit stand guard facing soldiers from North Korea. Often there is only one soldier on the side of North Korea.
The JSA is the only part of the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers are face to face. They are staring at each other all day long and this already for several years.
A little later you can enter the conference room. This is the actual conference room where the armistice agreement was signed. In this room, you will get the chance to cross the border. The border cuts the conference room in 2 so when you cross the room to the opposite side you’re effectively in North Korean territory.
This concludes your visit to the actual JSA zone, next you get a short tour along a lookout point towards North Korea from where you can see Propaganda Village.
This is a well-tended village just along the North Korean border that is supposedly housing 200 families, several schools and a hospital.
Tourists seldom see any movement in the village and it is believed that North Korea only built the town for propaganda purposes.
You will also visit the location of the Korean ax murder incident. Two American soldiers were killed here by North Koreans while cutting a tree.
Another highlight is the bridge of no return.
This is the bridge where prisoners between the two countries were exchanged after the Korean War.
The name originates from the final ultimatum that was given to prisoners of war brought to the bridge for repatriation: they could either remain in the country of their captivity or cross the bridge to return to their homeland.
However, once they chose to cross the bridge, they would never be allowed to return, even if they later changed their minds.
Imjingak Park and the Freedom bridge
Imjingak Park has an important sentimental and symbolic meaning. This park commemorates families who are separated because of the split between North and South.
The remnants of the Freedom Bridge can be seen from the park. This bridge was long 1 of only 2 bridges that crossed the Imjin River.
It had long served peaceful purposes but its position close to the Korean border made it of crucial importance during the Korean War.
The bridge was destroyed early in the war-making the Imjingang bridge alongside it the only connection to supply the Southern troops fighting in the Northern territory with supplies.
After the peace treaty was signed this bridge was also used the exchange the sick and wounded prisoners.
The Third Tunnel of Aggression
The Third Tunnel of Aggression is one of four known tunnels under the border between North and South Korea.
The tunnels have been dug to make a surprise attack from North Korea on South Korea.
North Korea denies this and claims the tunnels are part of a network of tunnels belonging to a coal mine. This is highly unlikely as coal has never been found in the area.
The Third Tunnel of Aggression is located 44 kilometers from Seoul and was discovered in 1978. It runs underneath the Demilitarized Zone.
The incomplete tunnel is 1,635 meters long, with a height and width of 2 meters. It is estimated that the tunnel would be able to accommodate more than 30,000 soldiers with light weapons per hour.
Today the tunnel has become an all-inclusive tourist attraction, with a DMZ video hall, representative sculptures, gift shops and more.
The Dora Observatory
The Dora Observatory is also known as the Unification Observatory. It is situated on top of Mount Dora.
Here you can catch a rare glimpse of the reclusive North Korean state without setting foot in the country.
You will see the Kijong-dong Propaganda village and, on a clear day, you can see as far as the real city of Kaesong situated about 8km from the DMZ.
Kaesong is the only city that actually changed hands after the Armistice agreement was signed. It used to be under control from South Korea but is now ruled by the North.
The Kaesong Industrial region that borders the city is because of it’s proximity to the border a special administrative region where both people from the North and the South are allowed to work.
You can also see the Dorasan train station, a station located at only 650 meters of the Korean border.
The railway line used to continue into North Korea all the way to the capital city of Pyongyang.
The tracks are still there and one hopes that in the near future the trains will again operate in between the two current capitals.
The Dorasan Train station
In 2000 North and South Korea made plans for a rail line that connected both capitals.
The line was completed in 2003 but it took until 2007 before the first freight trains started to run across the border. Not for long unfortunately because already in December 2008 North Korea decided unilaterally to again hermetically close the border.
The Dorasan Train station is currently hugely oversized. The DMZ train is the only train that serves the station with exactly one arrival and one departure daily.
But, with a large customs & immigration area, the station is completely ready for the day that the trains will again continue further North. The original intention was to enable passenger transport in the long term. Let’s hope that this will become a reality in the future.
At this point, Dorasan station is more a symbol of the hope for a reunion between South and North Korea than it is an actual functioning train station.
How to visit the DMZ
The DMZ area is located 60 km from Seoul and can be visited with the DMZ train or a private guided or group tour.
The DMZ peace train
The cheapest way to visit the DMZ is with the DMZ peace train.
The DMZ peace train runs from Seoul to Dorasan station from Tuesdays to Sundays. Just before the train reaches Dorasan station it crosses the Imjingang bridge which gives you a good view on the remnants of the Freedom bridge.
Once arriving at Dorasan station, you can hop on a bus to visit the DMZ. The bus will take you to the Dorasan peace park, the Dora observatory and you will visit the Third Tunnel of Aggression.
Pros and cons
- The cheapest way to visit the DMZ. You will have to take cash to pay separately for the bus tour (if you don’t join the bus tour the only other option is to hang around for 5 hours at the train station) as well as for your lunch.
- This tour might be for you if you don’t like group tours. It gives you slightly more freedom although you still will have to join the bus once you arrive at Dorasan station.
- No English is spoken on the bus tour.
- This tour takes a whole day. If you are short on time you better opt for an organized half-day DMZ tour allowing you to explore the rest of Seoul during the remaining afternoon
- You cannot visit the JSA.
- No hotel pick up, you will need to get to the train station on your own expense
Although we’re not fans of organized group tours ourselves we would have opted for an organized tour to visit the DMZ and this for two reasons.
Firstly because we absolutely wanted to visit the JSA.
Secondly, because we think that a knowledgeable guide can really add to the experience. A guide can tell you the stories behind the different things you see and really bring them to life.
Moreover, the price difference with the organized tours that take you to the same sites is not that big.
That’s why our advice would be to have a look at the organized tours before you opt for the train.
“The scariest place on Earth” – Former US President, Bill Clinton, during his visit to the DMZ in 1993.
The best DMZ tours from Seoul
The most comfortable way to visit the DMZ is with an organized DMZ tour from Seoul.
We recommend using GetYourGuide to book your DMZ tour in Korea. One of the advantages of GetYourGuide is that most tours have a flexible cancellation policy. Normally you can cancel up to 24hours before the tour to get a full refund.
You have a choice between half-day and full-day DMZ tours.
Make sure to book your DMZ tour from Seoul well in advance to avoid disappointments, JSA tours tend to sell out well in advance.
Which Dmz Korea tour is the best one? Here’s a list of the most recommended and popular tours. To create this list we looked at the itineraries and the reviews.
DMZ half and full-day tour
Due to an outbreak of swine flu this DMZ tour follows a slightly different itinerary. You will visit Ganghwa Peace Observatory from where you can see North Korea, you will visit the Veterans Memorial Park, Imjingak Park and the Bridge of Freedom.
Unfortunately, other parts of the DMZ are currently closed to visitors.
This alternative tour is still rated good by the participants, it is a very informative tour and you learn a lot about the Korean war.
- Explore the extraordinary Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea
- Get a rare glimpse of North Korea from the Dora Observatory
- See the Dorosan rail station that is constructed with the vision to connect the North and South in the future
There are both half and full-day tours. Both tours will take you to all the highlights of the DMZ. In addition, the full-day tour includes an authentic Korean style lunch (Bibimbap) and a real shooting experience back in Seoul.
We have good news if your only chance to visit the DMZ is on a Monday. This tour also runs on a Monday! The “normal” DMZ sites are closed on Mondays so instead, the tour takes you to other sights that are also located in the DMZ area. You will visit Gangwon Cherwon city where you can explore the 2nd infiltration tunnel, an old North Korean Labor Party office, and Woljeong-ri train station. This is an old and abandoned train station located along the Gyeongwon Line which used to connect Pyeongyang (the North Korean capital) with Seoul.
Those who are not interested in the JSA or who are short on time will find that the half-day DMZ tours offer a great alternative. You will see all the highlights of the DMZ and still have a half-day to discover Seoul.
If you add up all the costs of the train excursion, the difference between these half-day excursions is negligible.
DMZ Tour with a North Korean Defector
Based on recent reviews the tour also stops at Imjingak. This alternative tour is still rated good by the participants. Reviewers say it’s very educational to be able to ask questions to a North Korean defector.
- Listen to enlightening commentary from a professional guide and a real North Korean defector
- Ask questions about the real North Korean life and hear about the past and present of North Korea
- Enjoy a comprehensive tour of the Korean Demilitarized Zone ( tour of DMZ) and learn about both South and North Korea’s history
- Explore all the must-see spots in the DMZ in one tour
- Catch a rare glimpse of the reclusive North Korean territory
With this DMZ tour, you visit the must-see spots in the DMZ zone and you have the possibility to ask questions to a North Korean defector about the life in North Korea. You can opt for a tour with or without a hotel pick up and lunch.
This tour is similar to the half-day DMZ tour we listed above but you will be accompanied by a guide and a North Korean defector. This is our top recommended tour if you want to learn more about North Korea. There’s no better way to learn more about North Korea than to speak to somebody who lived there for several years.
A journey to South Korea is not complete without a visit to the DMZ. It may feel strange to travel to a very controversial border post as a tourist but it is the best way to learn about the rich albeit sad history of the 2 Korean countries.
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