Why you should care
“It’s the only place in the world where you can feel this kind of separation and tension.”
Shoulder to shoulder with South Korean soldiers in a tunnel built by North Korea, we are about 70 meters underground and can’t stop sweating. Only a stone’s throw away from the infamous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), it’s hot and humid, and the uphill slope back to the gift shop seems endlessly steep.
You read that right — gift shop. These tunnels, discovered in the 1970s, were originally built by North Korea as a way for their military to covertly march straight to Seoul during the Korean War in the 1950s. But now, the tunnels and other landmarks in the DMZ have become some of South Korea’s hottest attractions. “It’s the only place in the world where you can feel this kind of separation and tension,” says our tour guide, Ilyun Jung of I Love Seoul Tour, which has been offering tours here since 2001. Five hundred tourists visit the DMZ every day, Jung notes.
The photographs of separated families are jarringly emotional.
At Imjingak Park, our tour’s first stop, the mass interest is more than evident — the park is the northernmost part of South Korea tourists can visit without a permit. Hoards of guests mill around the Freedom Bridge and model train tracks, snapping pictures of the ribbons left behind by South Koreans praying for reunification with their North Korean families stuck on the other side. Though an amusement park is located directly next door and selfie sticks abound, the photographs of separated families are jarringly emotional.
A few minutes after leaving Imjingak, our bus is stopped at a checkpoint, and our passports are examined by South Korean soldiers. At Dorasan Station and Dora Observatory, the last two stops before the aptly named infiltration tunnels, the crowd of tourists noticeably shrinks — thanks to the area’s identification and pre-registration requirements. Dorasan Station is the most northern stop on the Korean State Railway’s Gyeongui Line and connects the two Koreas. The eerily hopeful (and largely defunct) station awaits South and North Korea’s reunification, and is currently in use only by tourists traveling between Seoul and Dorasan. According to Jung, the train station was fully operational for a short time earlier this year when the North Korean government allowed athletes and cheerleaders to attend the PyeongChang Olympics.
Tour-goers are welcome to get station stamps on souvenir postcards, though Jung reminds our group to not put the stamp in our real passports — “We don’t know if your country would let you back in afterward,” she jokingly warns.
Between the clean station floors, empty green chairs and signs pointing toward the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, visiting the silent railway station feels almost voyeuristic. But, perhaps, not nearly so much as the visit to the Dora Observatory. There, visitors have the opportunity to look directly into North Korea, straight into the building-filled propaganda city of Kijongdong.
South and North Korean flags, staunchly planted just a few kilometers apart near the Military Demarcation Line, are observable through pay-as-you-go telescopes and the naked eye on a clear day. Here you can also see the Joint Security Area (JSA) and Panmunjom — but only in the distance appearing as a clustered compound. This complex, with its low blue buildings, recently hosted the historic April summit between South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“We used to play international music and messages from our loudspeakers here in case North Koreans nearby could hear it,” says Jung, “but since the April summit we have stopped.”
On a politically calm day, tourists can also visit the JSA (but not on the I Love Seoul Tour; this can be booked via other companies). The site was officials-only from March to June 2018 for pre- and post-summit preparations — (perhaps also for war games) — however, tours are slated to resume in July 2018 on a tentative basis.
On the drive back to Seoul, North Korea is visible from the bus windows overlooking the Han River. Nearby, towering apartment and office buildings are springing up. “Rich people are already investing close to the border,” Jung notes. “They’re doing it in the hopes that these talks with Kim Jong-un will lead to reunification. If they do, this will be valuable real estate.” Maybe the buildings will include a gift shop.
- How to book: Several tour groups visit the DMZ (and sometimes the JSA) almost daily. Best bet: Check booking sites like Viator, and look for the four- and five-star reviews. Make sure to book at least two days in advance — and three days in advance if visiting the JSA. Your passport number is required at this time (and during any tour).
- Cost: Between $40 and $130. Tours are either full-day, combining the DMZ and JSA, or half-day. Leaving from Seoul, most embark at approximately 8:30 a.m. and return at 2:30 p.m or 6:00 p.m.
- Pro tip: Check on the security situation with your tour company a few days before travel to ensure your tour is still running.