You sign up for a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North Korea and South Korea most likely because you’re curious. It looks and sounds more like a dystopian movie setting than a place that could actually exist in the modern world — let alone just down the road from one of the world’s largest cities, Seoul. You want to see for yourself what this place is really like; you want some answers. Most likely, though, you’ll leave your DMZ tour with more questions than you arrived with.
But, you won’t be disappointed.
What to Expect on a JSA and DMZ Tour
The DMZ and Joint Security Area (JSA) are every bit as eerie and bizarre as you imagine. You’ll see firsthand the propaganda village where high-rise structures built on the North Korean side to show prosperity are completely empty — no furniture, no floors. You may hear the competing sounds of North Korean propaganda echoing from loudspeakers over the border and K-Pop on the South Korean side. In the JSA, your uniformed escort will be armed. You will be given orders to follow for your own protection, the protection of the strangers touring with you, and — no pressure — the maintenance of the armistice between the two Koreas.
Your JSA escort will prepare you for the possibility of locking eyes with a North Korean soldier. A JSA and DMZ tour will bring on the involuntary goosebumps you’ll fight as you’re told not to react whatsoever because your laugh or gasp or scowl could be photographed and become the next piece of North Korean propaganda. You’ll be told to stay two linoleum squares from the South Korean soldiers in the United Nations Command (UNC) conference room, and under the supervision of these soldiers, you’ll actually step into North Korea when you stand on the northern side of the room. You’ll be ordered to line up and face a certain direction on the steps of the Freedom House in full view of North Korean soldiers while South Korean guards stand only half exposed behind the blue conference rooms to make themselves smaller targets. You’ll be prohibited from taking photos multiple times throughout the tour.
You’ll pass fence lines with landmine warnings. Your guide will tell you that behind those fence lines, it is believed approximately 2 million landmines are undetonated and have been sitting there since the armistice that paused — not ended, mind you — the Korean War. You’ll see buildings built in the name of peace that remain silent, unused, and empty except for the curious tourists. You’ll descend into the Third Infiltration Tunnel and learn that the North Koreans allegedly dug as many as 20 of these tunnels, only four of which have been found.
Registering for the Tour
You book your trip to Seoul, and with your mix of curiosity and nervous butterflies, you decide to book your DMZ tour. Military families can book online through the USO. However, to get the active-duty military and dependent rate ($65 for the full DMZ/JSA tour) instead of the civilian rate ($92 for the same tour), skip the online registration form. Instead, email the address listed on the reservation page, firstname.lastname@example.org. This will connect you with a Koridoor representative — Koridoor is the vetted, USO-contracted tour company that handles the DMZ tours. The representative will secure your reservation, process your credit card payment, and send you the itinerary and transportation information.
If you prefer to make the reservation in person — maybe you’re stationed in Seoul, you must finalize payment and registration at least four days before your tour because all of your information has to be submitted to and cleared in advance. Also, remember it’s an unpredictable area. Cancellations spring up occasionally should threat levels rise.
Choosing Your Tour
The USO offers two tours: a full-day tour or a half-day tour. The full-day tour is not an option for kids under 10 years old because the JSA is situated along the Military Demarcation Line which is nothing more than a concrete curb separating the two countries. Any mom knows that curbs equal balance beams to kids — it simply isn’t safe.
The full-day DMZ/JSA tour includes:
- The JSA — Freedom House, UNC conference room (one of the blue buildings you see in the photos), and a gift shop (yes, one of the most dangerous places on Earth sells souvenirs — take a hard pass on the North Korean wine…ick).
- The Dora Observatory — This is where you see world leaders peering through binoculars into North Korea. You will also hear K-Pop on full blast in response to the ongoing North Korean propaganda broadcasts.
- Dorasan Station — If ghost towns needed train stations, Dorasan would be it. Here you have the option to purchase a ticket to the platform to see the tracks. This is an additional 1,000 South Korean won (roughly $1), so have some won handy if you’re interested. You may be able to hear music or propaganda resonating from North Korea here.
- Lunch — You’ll go to a cafeteria and have a couple options for lunch. If kimchi isn’t your thing, you can also pack your own lunch. The cost of lunch is not included in your tour, so bring extra won if you plan to eat. There are also restrooms available here.
- The Third Infiltration Tunnel — This is one of the tunnels dug by North Korea forces into South Korea. You’ll watch a video before descending into the tunnel. You’ll be required to wear a hard hat, and you are not permitted to take photos inside the tunnel. Officials advise that anyone with claustrophobia, heart problems, or leg or back issues sit this one out. You can walk upright the entire way down, but you may have to duck your head a couple of times. Don’t worry, you won’t have to crawl at any point.
The half-day tour is open to children, and it includes everything from the full-day tour except the JSA. Instead, you’ll be taken to Imjingak Park.
Like all things military, there is a dress code for the JSA. The members of the military working there are in uniform, obviously, but visitors are expected to wear — quoting a confirmation email here — “casual, semi-formal, or formal attire,” but don’t feel like you need to dust off your birthday ball gown — you’ll regret it hiking through the Third Infiltration Tunnel. Something you would wear to church or work should be fine. Close-toed shoes are also required. Basically, don’t wear any of this:
- Sleeveless tops or anything that shows your belly button
- Any clothing with offensive images or words on it
- Ripped jeans
- Shorts or skirts shorter than knee length
- Leggings as pants
- Sports jerseys or logos
- Shower shoes or sandals
- Anything camouflage
- Anything that could be mistaken for a military uniform
- Bag-in-sag pants
- Leather “biker” vests or riding chaps
You can bring a backpack or purse, but you will have to leave it on the bus for several of the stops.
Why It’s Worth It
The world’s relationship with North Korea is always evolving, never is that more apparent than now. Though the Korean War was paused by an armistice in 1953, the rivalry is tangible on the Korean Peninsula and visible to the rest of the world. Tensions rose in the U.S., South Korea, and Japan following tweets by President Trump that taunted “Rocket Man” and during the series of intercontinental ballistic missile tests that occurred between August and November 2017. Most recently, a skeptical world wonders if the North Korean promise to halt the nuclear tests is legitimate.
Amidst the uncertainty, there is one thing you can be sure of. The DMZ and JSA won’t exist as it is today forever. By taking the DMZ tour, you’re experiencing a piece of history. Perhaps one day we will talk about it in the past tense, and what a perspective you’ll be able to share because you were there and witnessed the way it used to be.
Photo Credits: Wikipedia