Being a tourist in the city or country that you’re from isn’t something most of us do (and why would we, we’re from here) but when you live as an ex-pat abroad, all of a sudden doing all of the things is something that’s on your list. Especially in a country like South Korea that is bustling with an endless number of things to do, see, and experience. One can have experiences that range from terrifying (like eating live octopuses) or exciting (like going to the summer water gun festival). So, when there is so many types of activities to do and you’re looking for something truly unique to do in South Korea, I’d like to recommend visiting the DMZ, or the Demilitarized Zone.
Okay, so depending on what you know about South Korea, (or don’t know) this idea might terrify or excite you (If you’re excited, we’re birds of the same feather~). If you’re nervous, I got you. I’ll explain how this experience was like for me, (though keep in mind that every adventure is different for everyone), what I got out of it, and what I wish I did differently.
First, let’s do a quick recap. What even is the DMZ and why should it be a place of interest? The Demilitarized zone is a heavily guarded border that divides North Korea from the South. Though the security is very tight, the tours are safe and you’d be able to “technically” enter North Korean territory and safely look into the secluded country.
Because of the heavy guards and strict rules regarding the DMZ, you can’t just waltz into the DMZ, you have to go with a government-approved guide (but this doesn’t mean it can’t still be fun). I chose to go with a tour site like Trazy and a group of my close friends (10/10 highly recommend). Most tour groups will have similarities with their itinerary, give or take a few differences.
The package should include pick up from your hotel or central location that isn’t too far away, a licensed English guide (other languages are also available) and tickets to the DMZ & surrounding areas. Other deals could include lunch, a North Korean Defector tour guide, and going to the JSA (the infamous area that houses those teal blue buildings and where North and South Korean soldiers standoff silently against each other. It’s also the place where the inter-Korea Summit of April 27th 2018 was signed).
On the day of the tour, my friends and I got up bright and early, before dawn (Just kidding, we are not morning people) and got ready to be picked up by our tour bus by 11:35 am. We get on the bus and head towards Imjingak Park, or Unification Park in Paju first. At the park, tourists can talk a walk on the Freedom Bridge, see the Bell of Peace, and enjoy countless other monuments as well.
When you leave the Park, you’ll be taken to the Dora Observatory where you can visit a museum that has a more extensive history of the DMZ and you can look into Kijong-Dong, a known propaganda village created by the DPRK, and more. Then, you are taken to the 3rd Tunnel (one of the tunnels built by North Korea, but discovered by the South in 1978). A helmet must be worn for safety, but you can enjoy a brisk hike underground and see the length of the tunnel all the way to the northern side. The hike is optional, however, so if you’ve got health restrictions that make it difficult to breathe or get claustrophobic in enclosed spaces, you do not have to go.
At the “end” of the tunnel you see into a square that lets you peek into the North, then you’ve got to turn around and make that hike back up. And don’t worry, hiking back up is a lot faster, I promise. Lastly, you’ll visit Dorasan Station (a subway station that theoretically could connect the North and the South) and much more. During the tour, you are being told interesting yet heartwarming stories about the conflict and history between the South and the North. You are also given plenty of water and bathroom breaks too!
If you can afford it, I highly recommend taking the joint JSA & DMZ tour. As a package deal, it’s more cost-effective and allows for a richer experience (although any tour package deal you take is going to be fulfilling). With my experience, that was the only thing I wish I did differently, but in all honestly, I wouldn’t change my DMZ trip or the friends I went with for anything.
There’s more to see and do depending on what type of tour you choose to take, but the most important thing regardless of what tour you go on is that you bring some cash, water, good hiking shoes, and most importantly, your passport and ARC (If you’re currently living in South Korea). You pass a military checkpoint before entering, and the soldiers take your safety seriously, so you can enjoy yourself without worrying.
By the time the tour is over, you might’ve bought a train ticket from the famous Dorasan Station, peaked into a city from North Korea, bought expensive Choco-pie simply because it was made in the DMZ (promise it’s better than regular ones too) and gained an unforgettable and irreplaceable experience. At the end of the tour, you’ll be dropped off at a local spot back in the city of Seoul, and from there you can take the subway, bus, or taxi back to your hotel or accommodation or on to your next destination.
Our tour ended by early evening, which gave us time to go back to our hostel, get cleaned up and go out again for dinner later. Now, as a joke, when I get asked which Korea I live in, (It’s the South, it’s always the South) I jokingly mention that I’ve been to both (and promptly freak out whoever’s asking) So…there’s that too.
Have you ever been to do the DMZ? What was your experience like, and would you go again? If you’ve never been before but have more questions, let me know! I’m no expert, but I’d love to help you as much as I can.