South Korea, as we know, hasn’t always been this way. Indeed, nearly 6 decades ago the land was known as a bigger and somewhat unified nation that included, what we now know as, North and South Korea. The legacy left after the Korean War, which occurred in the 1950s, has left a huge visible scar on the nation and its inhabitants. As a foreigner, it can be quite hard to understand but visiting the DMZ can be a great start to grasp the extent of this tragedy.
What is the DMZ and its history?
The DMZ, also known as the Demilitarized Zone, is what we consider the closest area bordering North and South Korea.
This weapons-free buffer zone was established on July 27, 1953, when the Armistice Agreement was signed and includes the 2km-wide stretch of land both north and south of the line. It extends largely from Gyeonggi-do to Gangwon-do, including seven different cities and smaller counties of Paju, Yeoncheon, Cheorwon, Hwacheon, Yanggu, Inje, and Goseong.
The zone has been protected from human disturbance for about 6 decades and has unintentionally become a haven for wildlife, making it a popular destination for nature and history lovers.
What does it include?
As shown above, the DMZ open to tourists, is a vast area covering many emblematic points along the border. When you first arrive, on a tour or not, you will first arrive at the Imjingak Resort. This first zone includes many sites available to visit on your own without a guide, such as the Cable Car + Paju Gondola Peace Zone, Imjingang Dokgae Bridge, the National Memorial Hall for Abductees during the Korean War, and many more.
To get further inside the DMZ, you now either must get on a tour that includes the following: The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, Dora Observatory, Jangdan Soybean Village, and JSA (Joint Security Area). Either visit with a regular ticket directly bought onsite of Imjingak Resort, which also includes the bus driving you around the controlled area but excluding the JSA.
(UPDATE) The JSA (Joint Security Area) has yet to reopen to the public since Covid-19.
Tour or not?
While there are areas you can visit on your own around Imjingak and other civilian control points, going on an approved tour is surely an excellent way to have a thorough education on the many sites open.
However, how scary it could be to visit on your own, it is possible to do so! You can directly go early morning to the ticket booth located in Imjingak Tourist Center and buy a ticket for 9.200 won per adult. This guideless tour, however, excludes Panmunjeon and the JSA.
Passport /ID/ ARC + security pledge
To visit the Imjingak Resort, an ID is not required as it is an open-air site (besides the Peace Gondola). However, to get further inside the DMZ, visitors are required to fill out a security pledge upon arrival and, bring a legitimate form of identification such as a passport/ARC with them.
Dress code and where?
When visiting the DMZ, a dress code is not imposed but it is better to dress accordingly to the situation. To visit the JSA however, it is required from you to be dressed appropriately.
Overall, avoid wearing faded, ripped, or torn jeans, tops showing too much skin, or open shoes. Dress casually and you will be okay.
Why so? North Korea often takes pictures of foreign tourists dressed “inappropriately” to use as propaganda for their so-called better nation ads. Just assume you’re being watched.
Pictures and videos only in the authorized areas
It is prohibited to take pictures or videos at a certain angle or point of view, watch out for the signs. Some areas, like the 3rd Tunnel, ask you to leave your phone in a locker during the visit. It is also prohibited to take pictures/videos of North Korean border guards, under any circumstances.
If you go against those restrictions, you might face significant fines and be asked to leave the premises.
How to get there from Seoul?
The distance from Seoul to Paju City takes about 1h to 1h30 depending on your transportation means. You can either get:
- DMZ peace train (UPDATE: still inactive post-COVID-19)
- Bus 7000 departing Hongik Univ. Station; one every hour + the last one at 5 pm
- Renting a car or taxi
- Tour including transportation
Have a nice visit!