DMZ is definitely the most uniquely Korean tourist attraction (from both sides). However, the name itself incites fear, which I covered in a previous article, it is a surprisingly peaceful and calm place. Besides safety concerns, there is another question that I often encounter, “Can we go there alone without a tour agency?” The answer would be, “Yes, except for the JSA (Joint Security Area).” That’s when I receive an additional response, “HUH?”. There are actually dozens of attractions along the DMZ that you can just show up and visit. And so, here is a DMZ itinerary.
Attractions at the DMZ
So, first of all, the DMZ is a pretty large chunk of land between North and South Korea. When you see international coverage of the DMZ, chances are you are just seeing the JSA. This is a highly secure, and frankly the scariest part, of the DMZ. It is mostly a tourist attraction and the site of political tension between the two countries.
However, most of the DMZ is just really pretty natural spaces. Although there are mines and all kinds of things that would make going into the DMZ very dangerous, it doesn’t look very intimidating if you were to just drive alongside it. You’ll see a chainlink fence with some barbed wire on top, next to open fields and a river. People on both sides of the border just live near the DMZ without giving it much thought. And so, at least on the Southern side, you can visit lots of attractions, other than the JSA, without an escort.
Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjeom
The Joint Security Area (JSA) is the most famous attraction in JSA, and probably the only attraction that is known as ‘DMZ’ by most people. For the millionth time, I usually had to explain (or remind) that DMZ actually refers to a 200-km long border encompassing several different provinces in North and South Korea.
Tourists can visit any cities and tourist destinations along the border without a tour agency, but JSA is the restricted one that needs a tour agency to visit. As suggested by its name, JSA is a high-level security area where UN (US-ROK, mostly) armed forces and KPA (North Korean People’s Army) are stationed.
What’s in the JSA
I was fortunate enough to visit JSA a month before the Inter-Korean Summit happened in April 2018. The tension and security level were on high alert, but the tour was fortunately not canceled. The tour had to pass several checkpoints (must bring passports) and a soldier got on the bus to check our passports one by one.
After getting off the bus, we arrived at the main office area and got some briefings from a US soldier about the Korean War and what happened afterward. I also had to sign a form, basically stating that I was aware of the level of risk.
The main building has a small museum detailing Korean War, JSA history, and some small ‘battles’ that happened throughout the truce period. The briefings and the museum will give visitors a good explanation of history for visitors, whether or not we have initial knowledge of Korean history. I even chuckled at the mention of North Korea’s pettiness to compete with its neighbor by building a taller or bigger building at their JSA’s side.
Once the briefing was done, an officer brought us (on a bus) to the blue houses and the Peace House. He explained more about the history and what we can (and cannot do) on the grounds. Usually, visitors can walk free in the South Korean zone in JSA and visit the Peace House and Freedom House. Unfortunately, KPA appeared for the first time after a while, so the security risk was extremely high and the officer did not allow us to get off of the bus.
DMZ Itinerary: Imjingak Park
Now, if you cannot go to JSA (they are not open for visitors yet) by tour group, you can always start a DMZ Tour in Paju from Imjingak Park. It is easily reachable by bus from Seoul, but you need to pay attention to the bus schedule because they have one-hour intervals.
Imjingak Park preserves important war relics, like the Freedom Bridge, bullet-torn locomotive, and Imjingang rail bridge. After the successful summit in 2018, the Korean government added a peace gondola that brings us over to the other side of the Imjin River.
Across the river, there is an eco-park and a long walkway to a ‘peace monument.’ Interestingly, there are warning signs of ‘MINE.’ Some parts of DMZ are dangerous landmines and both Koreas are still working on removing them to this day. So I was wondering if the warning signs were real, or just an accessory.
Anyway, at the main park, you can access a bunker that has war relics, like helmets and guns, for KRW 1,000. To access the clear view of the Freedom Bridge, you have to pay another fee (I don’t remember how much). There are some telescopes on the main building’s rooftop, but it’s KRW 500 per view. The bullet-torn locomotive was free to view, though.
You can also leave a message on the ribbons at the fence, and pay respect to some monuments there. Families of Korean War victims (or the separated ones) usually do their ancestral ritual at the monuments, because it’s impossible for them to pay respect in North Korea.
Imjingak Park is always packed on weekends because it’s like a huge entertainment complex for families. There are several attractions like Pyeonghwa Nuri Park, Pyeonghwa Land (amusement park), and of course, the Peace Gondola!
DMZ Itinerary: Dorasan Station and Observatory
Getting to this station is a bit tricky. There is public transportation, but I don’t know if they ever come because the interval is so long. Driving a car or taking a taxi is probably a better option to get around Paju.
Dorasan Station is an ambitious reunification project. Both Koreas plan to reconnect the railways of the entire peninsula and have included the railway restoration projects in Inter-Korean summits since 1998. If reunification happens, not only that we can take trains to Pyongyang, but also to Russian territory and European countries. This ambitious project is titled ‘Trans Eurasian Railway Network.’
While the station is still defunct, we can get to the second floor for the observatory deck. Same with Imjingak, there are telescopes here (pay KRW 500) to spy on the neighbor. Dorasan is much closer to North Korean territory, so on a clear day, we can see way beyond the border. Unfortunately, it was cloudy when I was there so I could only hear North Korean propaganda songs from the speakers along the border.
DMZ Itinerary: The Third Tunnel
The war has not officially ended, and North Korea seems to hold onto a plan to infiltrate their southern neighbor again. So they built several underground tunnels across the DMZ, and by far, only four have been found. The Korean government found the third tunnel in 1978.
I have never been to the first, second, and fourth ones. But the third one is probably the easiest one to access because it’s near Dorasan Station and Observatory.
The admission fee is KRW 9,200 and an extra KRW 12,200 for the monorail going inside the tunnel (GGC). There’s an entrance without a monorail, but it’s quite steep to walk on.
The GGC website above said that visitors will need to buy tickets at Imjingak for a tour there, but I cannot confirm since I went there with a tour agency in 2018. A friend of mine said he managed to reach Dorasan and the Third Tunnel with a bus and taxi, too. There was no officer checking my passport in both place either.
Anyway, I took the monorail to go in and out of the tunnel. We also needed to store our things inside the available lockers before getting on the monorail. If I’m not mistaken, we couldn’t photograph and video inside the tunnel.
The tunnel was not long or narrow. I can walk straight (I’m pretty short) through it, but some ceilings will be too short for taller people. There was nothing inside the tunnel, but some empty chambers. I wasn’t sure if the Korean government removed everything inside before opening it to the public, though.
The most interesting thing for me was the end of the tunnel. I overheard a tour guide say that beyond the barrier, it’s North Korean territory. There was a table with some photos of the tunnel (and the excavation) and military stuff on top of it. I don’t quite remember what they are now, sadly.
DMZ in Paju is probably the most accessible one from Seoul by public transportation. If you want to explore more places, I suggest riding a car, or going through a tour agency for a one-day tour!