Asia,  South Korea,  TDM,  Travel Journal

DMZ Tour: at the border between North and South Korea

In 1953, after 3 years of war and 3 million casualties, North and South Korea agreed to a ceasefire. Officially, the two countries have been at war since then, but the fighting has stopped

The two countries have defined a border. On either side of this border, a 2-kilometer zone is demilitarized, known as the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)

So there is a 4km wide area almost ghostly, which has become a paradise of biodiversity in which protected species thrive

The paradox is that beyond these 4 kilometers, we find the zone with the highest concentration of military forces on the planet. Approximately 1 million soldiers (700,000 North Korean soldiers, 400,000 South Koreans, not counting 25,000 Americans), thousands of armored vehicles, minefields, ..

In the middle of the DMZ is the JSA (Joint Security Area). An unusual place, under UN control, the last remnant of the Cold War

In this JSA, soldiers from the north and the south face each other, observing each other 24 hours a day, just a few meters apart. Barracks straddling the border allow diplomats from both sides to meet while remaining in their own country

Paradoxically, this inhospitable region is one of the big tourist spots of South Korea

Even though it may look like unhealthy voyeurism, we couldn’t miss it. Especially since this area is at the heart of the news with the historic meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un that took place only 3 days ago (in Singapore on the other hand)

Two types of visits are offered by all tourist agencies

– A half-day “DMZ tour” that takes us to the few points of interest in the DMZ
– A “JSA tour” lasting one day. In addition to the visits of the “DMZ tour”, this tour allows you to visit the JSA

We had initially planned a JSA tour that had to be booked several weeks in advance. Unfortunately this one was cancelled due to “military operations”

No other date being available before our departure from Seoul, we fell back on the DMZ tour

We booked online on the website of the agency VIP travel. We paid 65,000 won per person for the afternoon tour. The morning tour costs 10 000 less. All agencies offer more or less the same rates. Some agencies offer lower prices but it is often a “shopping tour” with long regular stops in various stores

The tour includes the pick-up but we are outside the “pick-up” area, so we have to make a short trip by subway to get to the meeting place

A minibus picks us up at the scheduled time and we are greeted by a very friendly English-speaking guide

We take the road towards the border, I have to look at my application to believe it: we are at the gates of North Korea

Imjingak Park

After about an hour drive, we stop in Imjingak. This is the last village before entering the DMZ

This village was built during the war to accommodate refugees from the north

As the DMZ is very difficult for Koreans to access, it is here that they come to collect themselves

We can therefore see several objects commemorating the war as well as flags, hopes for peace

An observation point allows to have a panoramic view of the area and to see the Freedom bridge. This bridge was built in 1953 to allow the transfer of 12,773 released prisoners between the north and south. This bridge is unfortunately not used since then

With the purchase of a ticket (2000 won per person), it is possible to go to the undestroyed part of the Dogkae bridge that connected the north and the south before it was destroyed during the war. The interest isn’t obvious but it allows a better view of the Freedom Bridge

More surprisingly, this village is home to an amusement park apparently prized by the Koreans. Funny place to party

Meanwhile, our guide buys the tickets for the DMZ. Being a restricted area, it is impossible to enter it by cab or tourist bus. Only shuttles managed by the authorities are allowed

We then realized that it was quite conceivable, contrary to what we thought, to go to the site by ourselves and make the visit without going through an agency. The agency makes indeed a hell of a margin (the ticket costs 12,200 won per person, 7,000 if we are a group, we paid our tour 65,000 each). We do not regret our choice however, without guide, no explanation in English. Moreover, our driver did not seem the nicest man on earth and we wouldn’t have known what to do, where to go, or the departure time at each stop

So we take a seat in another bus and make the last hectometers that separate us from the DMZ. Two South Korean soldiers enter the bus to carry out a brief passport check. I have the impression that the check consists mainly in verifying that all the passengers are foreigners and that no Korean wants to pass from the South to the North (which would be a funny idea). We will also be entitled to a second check on the way back

After this checkpoint, we enter the no man’s land. If we hadn’t noticed the tension that reigns on this place, the regular signs on the side of the road indicating mine fields are there to remind us

Dora Observatory

We then arrive at the Dora Observatory from where we will have a breathtaking view of North Korea

Surprising place where binoculars are lined up (500 won for 2 minutes of use) to allow tourists to observe the North Korean “enemy”. One could believe oneself in an amusement park, obviously nothing like that

The guide tells us that we are lucky with the weather, the view is particularly clear. The area is often foggy and offers a much reduced visibility. So try to plan your visit according to the weather

Very symbolic vision, we can see two flags a few hundred meters apart. A South Korean flag and another North Korean one. The city that we can observe in the distance is thus located in North Korea. Strange feeling to be in the immediate vicinity of the last country in the world to live in quasi-autarky

The North Korean flag (160 meters high to exceed the 100 meters of the South Korean flag) is located in the village of Kijong-dong. In North Korea, this village is nicknamed “peace village”. In South Korea, it is nicknamed “village of propaganda” . It was indeed noticed that the lights of the houses were turned on every day at a fixed time. In reality, no North Korean lives here, too close to the border

After a few minutes of observation, we are invited to watch a video allowing us to understand what we see (what cities, what buildings are observable). A model of the area allows us to understand the geography of the place

The 3rd Tunnel

After that, we take the bus back to the “3rd tunnel”. We start with a quick visit of a small museum that explains the history of the tunnels. The North Koreans built 4 vast tunnels under the border in order to prepare an invasion of South Korea. These tunnels allowed thousands of men to reach Seoul in one hour

These 4 tunnels were discovered thanks to the indications of defectors from the north. In this case, the 3rd tunnel was discovered in 1978

In this museum, a model allows a good understanding of the organization of JSA. The border being represented by the leds

A short film with a slight propaganda flavor explains how the horrible northern neighbor planned to use these tunnels

After the museum, we have to leave our phones and bags in lockers and take a helmet to get to the 3rd tunnel

The first 700 meters are easy and allow to go down to the tunnel level (it will however be necessary to go up, less obvious for the elderly). The last 400 meters, during which we are in the tunnel itself, are more trying. The ceiling is indeed 1m60 high. With my 85 meter, the helmet was a precious ally

We progress until we reach the place where the tunnel has been condemned. A small window allows us to observe an area at the bottom of which there is another wall. The guide explains to us that in this zone, there is a huge water tank that, in case of invasion, will be released. Thanks to the inclination of the ground, the invader will be repelled

To be honest, there isn’t much to see, the interest of the place is limited if the historical aspect is hidden

Dorasan Station

Then we go to Dorasan train station which is the northernmost train station in South Korea

This station was financed by private donors and inaugurated in 2002 by the South Korean Prime Minister and US President Bush. The station is in perfect working order but is a ghost station even if a tourist “peace train” connects Seoul and Dorasan once a day

Above all, it is a link with a strong symbolic charge, a hope for the reunification of the two Koreas. A sign indicates the platform for the train to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, but is obviously not in service

For collectors like us, two commemorative stamps are available. It is mentioned not to stamp passports. Although I don’t really see what problem this could cause, we are abandoning the idea

While we were there, Korean students and their teachers began to fervently chant a rallying cry. The guide explains that it is a slogan in favor of the reunification of the two Koreas

South Korea is deeply divided on the subject. The conservative party, whose voters are predominantly elderly people who have experienced war, is strongly opposed to the reunification of North and South. Every Saturday in Seoul, large demonstrations are held in opposition to the current liberal government

The Liberals, for their part, are in favor of diplomacy and rapprochement. The guide explains that last week’s local elections saw the Liberal Party come out on top

We leave this station hoping that in a few years, it will no longer be a tourist place, will become a station like all the others and will connect the north and the south of a reunited country


We do not regret having made this visit even if we must admit that what we saw was not of exceptional interest. It is the strong symbolic charge that must be retained. On the way back, our guide explains to us that the last words of his father, on his deathbed, were for his village in the north. He was never able to return there after the war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *