Daytrip from Seoul: the DMZ


A trip to the DMZ is an absolute must during your travels and Korea. Located approximately 50 kilometres north of Seoul, it makes for an easy day trip. Which is precisely what we did.

What is the DMZ? Established in 1953, it’s a buffer zone, roughly 4 kilometres wide and separates North and South Korea. There you go. Short and easy answer.

We won’t get into the whole history of the DMZ now. You can check out this post of ours, which tells you all there is to know about the whole affair. Well, it tells you the important bits from a person who has a degree in history and promptly forgot most of what she’d learned (27,000GBP well spent). It’s definitely worth reading beforehand to give added appreciation to the whole experience – oh and the excellent writing skills of course.

Why should I visit the DMZ?

The DMZ isn’t a place exclusively for history enthusiasts. Arguably, it’s one of the most volatile regions in the world and also doubles up as a tourist attraction. Don’t know about you, but we can’t think of any other place with knife-edge tensions and can be visited by ordinary civilians.

Why the tension? Well, in 1953 the Korean War came to an end, but an official peace treaty was never signed. Technically, this means that North and South Korea are still at war (oh, and it probably doesn’t help that Kim Jong-un is a bit missile trigger-happy nowadays either).

DMZ Daytrip: The Ins and Outs

Disclaimer

Before we start – a quick disclaimer. Constant tensions between North and South means that our trip to the DMZ may be entirely different from the one available to you. If tensions are high, then expect the whole area to be closed down to ordinary civilians or for some restrictions to be in place. Always double-check with the official website a day prior. Also, bear in mind that trip organisers have the right to cancel the trip last minute if things are kicking off.

Organised Tours

The only way to visit the DMZ is with a guided tour. It’s as simple as that. No way around it. If you want, you can get to the DMZ on your own steam (pun intended) via the Peace Train. The train departs from Yongsan station in Seoul, and travels northward until arriving at Dorosan station. You’ll alight and have an organised tour guide waiting for you and the other passengers. If you want to check out tickets and schedules then this can be done in person or online. Sadly, the Peace Train wasn’t running when we visited the DMZ. Not surprising given that the two Koreas weren’t feeling particularly peaceful at the time.

Is it good Value for Money?

Back to the talk of organised tours. Now, usually, we would turn our noses up at this kind of thing. Why pay more money and have a controlled itinerary mapped out for us? Our inner budget selves shudder at the thought. But when it came to the DMZ, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

The organised tours can be enjoyed by the history buffs who can reel off an event for every year since the 1600s, and by those who can’t remember what they did last Tuesday. Our guide’s retelling of the Korean War was engaging and informative, made all the more moving by personal stories of how the separation has impacted her family. It gave us an appreciation for the painful history, the kind that cannot be found by reading a book or watching a documentary.

When you shop around for a tour, you’ll have two options to pick: a full-day package tour or a half-day. Full-day tours will combine a visit to the DMZ with a visit to the JSA. Stating the obvious now when we say that there’ll be more things to do on the full-day tour. After a few Google clicks, we decided to book via Klook. Most tours have a similar structure: meet early at a designated location in Seoul, be introduced to your tour guide, and then drive by coach to the DMZ, which will drop you back off in Seoul at the end of the trip. In our case, our tour organisers asked us to meet at Hongik University Subway Station Exit 3 at 7:20am.

DMZ: What You’ll See

As we said, the itinerary for this visit may vary depending on general tensions (a bit like travelling with Sara when the hunger grumps are kicking in). Below, we’ll mention what can be seen on a tension-free day.

The tour is strictly controlled. There’s no wandering off, no quickly checking something out and then rejoining your group some minutes later. The tour guide will take you to the places that you’ll be permitted to see and you’ll follow.

The Joint Security Area (JSA)

Right, we have the DMZ – the buffer zone and within that zone is the JSA, located in the village of Panmunjom. This area is the closest you can get to North Korea without being shot. If the name doesn’t ring a bell then the iconic blue-painted UN buildings might, wherein Donald Trump shook hands with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, as did President Moon Jae-in of South Korea.

Another surreal sight – in all of the DMZ’s 238 kilometers length, this is the only place where unarmed North and South Korean soldiers face one another. It’s like a never-ending staring contest.

On the subject of soldiers, you’ll be guided by a South Korean soldier on this strictly controlled tour around the JSA. They’ll point out seemingly ordinary spots which have a bloody history, the poignant examples being the place where two U.S. soldiers were hacked to death with axes by North Korean soldiers as they pruned a tree.

The Conference Room

This room is within the JSA area. For a place that looks dull on first appearance, it’s crammed with history and makes for a truly fascinating place – more so that any other generic four-walled building. This is the room where the 1953 armistice agreement was signed between North Korea, the U.S., China, and the U.N command. Quick recap: this was the agreement that brought about the start of demilitarising after the ceasefire. (Again, you can check out our history of the DMZ post for more history waffles).

At the time of writing, it’s also the only place where you can technically step into North Korea. The demarcation line which divides the country in two also cuts through this room. So, if you walk from one side of the room to the other, then you’re in North Korea – albeit for a grand total of five minutes.

Daeseong-dong and Gijeong-dong

These two take neighbour rivalry to new heights entirely which not even the producers of Desperate Housewives could attempt to recreate. Daeseong-dong is the village in the south, and Gijeong-dong is in the north. Gijeong-dong, which translates to ‘Peace Village’ has been renamed ‘Propaganda Village’ by the South. The reason for this is that the entire village is believed to be empty. It is supposedly home to hundreds of families, but practically no movement has ever been seen there. And if that didn’t make you raise your eyebrows skeptically – the lights from the homes in this village click on and off at the exact same time every single day. Suspish.

Like we said, the two have the same rivalries that you’d expect from the suburbs: playing music too loudly (propaganda music, no reggaeton or chart-toppers) and trying to outdo one another by constructing the largest flag. Gijeong-dong bested Daeseong-dong in this round with its 300kg North Korean flag atop a 600-metre tower.

The Bridge of No Return

The ultimate ultimatum. After 1953, prisoners between the two sides were exchanged on this bridge. But, before crossing prisoners were given a choice. Either remain in the country of their captivity or cross the bridge back into their homeland. The catch was that once a prisoner had decided, there was no backing out and mind-changing.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t open to the public during our visit which meant we had to settle for squinting from a distance.

Unfortunately, the JSA and the Bridge of No Return weren’t open when we visited but you can rest assured that we’re not just making up these experiences for word count purposes – Ellie visited the JSA at an earlier date (one of the many perks of teaching in South Korea). The places we’re about to mention now we’re ones that we visited on our trip in December 2023.

The Dorosan Observatory

On a clear day, you’ll see far into North Korea – from Daeseong-dong village to Kaesong City, and the bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung. The ultra-zoom setting on the binoculars makes for great snooping so you may be able to see North Koreans going about their daily business.

The Third Tunnel of Aggression

History time. This incomplete tunnel was discovered in 1978, when North Korean tunnelers outed themselves by setting off some explosives. The South detected this and then, after months of searching, found the tunnel. And not just any tunnel. This tunnel could accommodate 30,000 men and was created with the intent of a surprise attack on Seoul. More interesting still, it’s one of many. Four tunnels have been discovered, all starting in North Korea and stretching miles toward Seoul, but there are believed to be more.

Like a child shifting the blame onto their sibling while being reprimanded by a parent, North Korea pointed the finger at South Korea and hastily denied any responsibility. This brought about some disbelieving scoffs and then North then changed their story, claiming that this tunnel was part of their coal mine network. The fact that no coal has ever been found let alone sourced in this area doesn’t make for a convincing cover story though the North Koreans did go through the effort of painting the rocks black.

The Third Tunnel of Aggression concluded our trip to the DMZ and we spent the rest of the bus ride pack catching up on some sleep. Hold up – our post doesn’t end here. There’s a lot of important information that you need to know before your trip and which we’ve conveniently mentioned for you below. You can thank us later.

DMZ: The Rules and Regs

You know the signs where you’re being asked not to do something but people still do it anyway, and nothing comes about aside from a few disapproving glances – like, ‘please don’t walk on the grass’. Well, the rules and signs at the DMZ aren’t like this. You pay attention to them, and you adhere to them. These were the rules that were given to us, though this may have altered after the time of writing.

  • Bring your passport. No photocopies – your actual passport. Army personnel will need to check this at various intervals.
  • Tours to the JSA will require a waiver signature. That means you’ll need to fill in a form agreeing that no one is responsible for your injury (or death).
  • Tours to the JSA will require a dress code (think meeting your significant other’s family for the first time). No tattered jeans, no sleeveless shirts. Interestingly, we were told that the reason for this dress code was because North Korea had (apparently) video tourists for propaganda purposes, commenting on the questionable dress sense of the democratic countries.
  • No waving, pointing or any gestures towards the soldiers, Southern or Northern.
  • There are strict photograph restrictions in place. So, if you’re told not to take photos, then don’t take photos. It’s not worth it for an Instagram story.

When to Visit

Weather-wise, you can go pretty much any time of the year. Stating the obvious when we say that the trip will probably be less enjoyable in the rain, so June-July (which are the monsoon months) may be worth swerving. We visited in the winter. True, jumping on the spot to keep our toes warm and some muttered obscenities about the cold were a frequent occurrence, but we’d recommend it nonetheless. The snow made for a spectacular, haunting atmosphere. Of course, winter weather means worse visibility. So if you want to make sure to see North Korea, visit during the dry season.

Final Thoughts

We cannot recommend this outing highly enough. If you’ve read any of our other posts, you’ll know just how much we like to budget during our travels. A day trip to the DMZ was one of our more ‘extravagant splurging displays’ but worth every single cent.

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