Back in 1953, Korea was divided in two, due to the ongoing Korea war. Even though things are a lot calmer between the two countries now, they are still officially at war and the division on the peninsula has split families, caused isolation, deaths, poverty and the devastating dictatorship in North Korea.
Although I have never been to North Korea, I’ve read about the country, both in the news and in books. The closest I’ve been is on the DMZ border on the South Korean side. In this article, I’ll let you in on tips on how to visit the DMZ from Seoul as well as all you need to know to prepare for the day.
What is the DMZ?
DMZ is short for Demilitarized Zone and the border between North Korea and South Korea has a Demilitarized Zone. The Korean DMZ was created in 1953 and roughly divides the two countries where Soviet and the United States divided their power after WW2. It’s a demilitarized buffer zone along the border between the two countries.
The DMZ is about 250 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide and the areas outside the DMZ is one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world. In the middle of the DMZ is the Military Demarcation Line(MSL). MSL is a border between the two countries, agreed upon when the DMZ was established and is the country’s official border. The DMZ lies about 50 km from Seoul, the capital of South Korea and you can, therefore, without a problem, visit the DMZ on a daytrip.
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What is on the DMZ – The Koreas Joint Security Area
Be aware that the DMZ tours doesn’t involve the opportunity to step into North Korea. Crossing the North Korean boarder is only possible with a tour t the Joint Security Area, and the price for this is much higher than just visiting the DMZ. If you want to step into North Korea, the only way to do that is to do a tour to the JSA. This is a building in the middle of the DMZ and where the two nations meet on occasion to discuss and negotiate regarding the ongoing war between them.
Apart from a Joint Security Area, the only things located in the Korean demilitarized zone is the neutral Swiss and Swedish military. There have also been initiatives to remove landmines spread out over the DMZ area in later years.
Why should you visit the DMZ?
Visiting the Korean DMZ is an opportunity to learn more about the history of the division of the two countries and how the war and tension between South and North Korea is still ongoing today. It will leave you with a new understanding of the problems this war situation is faced with.
How to get to DMZ from Seoul
You can visit DMZ from Seoul with a tour, and the things you will see are more or less the same on the tours. If you want to visit the JSA too, there are tours that will take you to both. These tours are, however, pricier and also full-day tours. As many of the areas along the DMZ are heavily militarized and located behind the Civilian Control Line, most sights are not possible to visit without a tour. Read more about other options this further down in the article.
Do a tour to DMZ from Seoul
There are a bunch of companies offering DMZ tours and what you get to see on the tour is mostly the same. So, what is included in a standard DMZ Tour from Seoul?
Tour with or out without lunch: Be aware that some companies sell a tour with lunch included, and some are without lunch. The DMZ tours are all half-day tours, so the most economical option would be to take a tour without lunch, and then treat yourself to a good meal when you arrive back in Seoul. The lunch included in some tours is anyway on arrival back in Seoul.
Tours pick you up or decide on a meeting point in Seoul. We met up in the hotel lobby of a hotel located super central in Seoul. When we got on the bus we were given signs that we were asked to wear. This made it easier for our guide to identify us in the crowds on our different stops through the tour.
Our guide Jinny told us about the history of DMZ, the Korean war and the relation between the countries today. She kept interacting and kept the conversation going throughout the day.
How much does it cost to visit the DMZ?
We paid 50000 won per person for our guided tour to DMZ and we chose to meet up at the meeting point central in Seoul. However, the company offered pick-up service for an extra price. You can also check out a bigger selection of tours to the DMZ before making a decision.
English guides in Korea
Although our guide was an English-speaking guide, the level of English in South Korea is not the same as many other places around the world. Sometimes, it could be hard to understand certain things our guide told us because of pronunciation. Our guide was quick to elaborate or explain better when asked though. I would also say that this is a thing that concert tourism in general in Korea, not our guide in particular.
The DMZ Tour attractions
Where does the DMZ Tour take you?
The DMZ visits usually include these stops:
- Imnjingak Park and the Freedom bridge
- Dorasan Station
- Dora Observatory
- Visiting the 3rd infiltration tunnel and the DMZ Pavillion Museum
Imnjingak Park and the Freedom bridge.
Imnjingak Park is an area with several monuments and statues in connection to the Korea War. This is also where the Freedom bridge is located. The bridge is now a symbol of freedom, and although it’s now blocked off, this is were the first exchange of prisoners happened after the war. The bridge crosses the River Imjin from which the two countries are divided by.
You can also see a train displayed on the site, with severe damage from bullets during the war. If you want to, you’ll have the possibility to pay extra and go out on a glass terrace called Dokgae bridge. From here you’ll have a better look at the Imjin River, the freedom bridge and the North Korean riverbank on the other side.
Right by the parking lot, there is a building where they sell refreshments and some food. The time given at this stop is, after my opinion not long enough to sit down and eat or drink something. However, I recommend going up on the roof of the building to get a good look of the area, this is of course free.
From the roof, you can see the freedom bridge. Originally, there were two railway bridges crossing the river, they where both destroyed during the war before 1953. One of the bridges was rebuilt to exchange prisoners. The rebuilt bridge, was named freedom bridge and is 83 meters long, 4,5 meters wide and stands 8 meters tall.
After the first stop on the tour, our next stop was the Dorasan train station. In the future, the station is envisioned to connect South and North Korea and from there, the Korean Peninsula with China and the rest of the world. By connection KoRail to the Trans-Siberian railroad, they want to create the transcontinental railroad. How cool would it be to basically take the trail from Europe to Korea? It would definitely take longer than flying though.
Dorasan Station is the last train station in South Korea on the border to DMZ. There are train connections to and from Seoul a couple of times a day. At the station, you’ll be able to stamp your passport, take photos and also buy souvenirs.
There have been made 13 226 donations to the future connection and construction of the train line.
On top of Dorasan mountain lies Dora Observatory. From the top of the building, there are binoculars and you can see a North Korean and South Korean village.
It is definitely a strange feeling to see the two villages, with their flags, so close together.
DMZ Pavillion Museum & Visiting the 3rd infiltration tunnel:
After the Observatory, the tour will take you to DMZ Pavillion Museum located next to the third infiltration tunnel. You’ll be shown an informative movie and afterward, the guide will take you to some of the museum’s exhibition and explain what you see. Following this, You’ll be taken to the building where you access the third Infiltration tunnel.
The third infiltration tunnel was discovered in 1978 and is 1635 meters long. The tunnel was made by North Korea and goes under the DMZ to South Korea. As a visitor, you can walk 265 meters into the tunnel, but first, you have to walk the 73 meters down to where the tunnel starts. The tunnel measures 2 x 2 meters, but have been modified to make it more comfortable for tourists to go into it. Still it is small and I on my 1,76 meters had to go walk bent for several parts though it.
You’ll have to leave your belongings in a locker and will get helmets before going down. The tunnel is actually pretty cool, which can be refreshing, especially if you’re visiting during the Korean summer. Just be prepared for the hike back up from the tunnel, which is pretty steep!
It’s not recommended to go into the infiltration tunnel if you are in bad shape, afraid of small spaces, have asthma, heart problems, etc.
After the third Tunnel visit, you get back on the tour bus and head back to Seoul. We got the choice to get dropped off by the town hall or in Myengdong. Both locations are close to big metro stations and easy places to navigate the rest of your day from. If you have these same options and want lunch, I definitely recommend getting dropped off in Myeongdong.
What to bring to DMZ
Passport! – Definitely bring your passport. You’ll be entering areas with high military security and tour companies don’t let you join the tour if you don’t have your passport with you.
Snacks and water – Definitely bring some snacks, light food and plenty of water to keep you going until you’re back in Seoul. You’ll have plenty of time to eat on the bus, and you’ll enjoy your day more if you’re properly fuelled. Make a visit to one of the many small kiosks like C2U and 7/11 and try some of the many fun, strange and weird snack options they offer.
Sunblock – Bring sunscreen if you visit during the summer. It can be extremely hot.
What to wear when visiting DMZ
Most companies offering tours to DMZ recommend a couple of guidelines for what to wear to the DMZ. The recommended dress code for DMZ is to avoid jeans or other clothing items that are faded, ripped, or torn. No tops, singlets or crop tops. No short shorts, skirts, flip flops or sandals. Military-inspired clothes, as well as oversized clothes and sportswear, are to be avoided too. With that said, dressing casual and you’ll be fine.
The reason behind this is that it has been known and feared that North Korea uses footage of tourists on the border as propaganda to show that South Korea is poor. “They can’t even afford proper clothes”.
How to visit the DMZ without a tour
As mentioned earlier many of the attractions in the area are located behind the Civilian Control Line- They can therefore only be visited on organized tours. However, you can get to the DMZ area by train. That way you can start your tour from Dorasan Station instead of from Seoul. This means that you can get to the DMZ on your own. Nevertheless, if you actually want to see more of the DMZ area, you’ll have to join a tour from there.
If you want to go by train to DMZ you can buy your ticket to Dorasan Station at the Korail office in Seoul Station and Yongsang station. There are even ticket vending machines there where you can buy them.
DMZ Train Prices: From Seoul Station to DMZ the train costs 8900 won each way. If you want to take the train from Yongsang station, the lines first stop, the ticket is 9200 won. You’ll have to buy two one way tickets as they don’t sell roundtrip tickets.
Tour from Dorasan Station:
On the train, they’ll sell tickets to the shuttle bus that takes you to the various locations in the DMZ area. The price for the shuttle bus tour from Dorasan station is 18000 won.
DMZ Train Times: The train to Dorasan goes ones every day back and forth. It starts at Yongsang station 10.08, Seoul Station 10.12 and arrives at Dorasan 11.42.
The train back to Seoul departs from Dorasan Station 16.00.
The tour bus is scheduled according to the DMZ train. If you want to read more about the DMZ train schedule and prices check out Korail’s page.
The tour makes some different stops compared to the standard DMZ Tour from Seoul
- Starts at Dorasan station
- Dorasan Peace Park
- Lunch break, lunch not included
- Dora Observatory
- 3rd infiltration tunnel and DMZ Pavillion Museum.
What DMZ Tour should you choose?
As the two tours have different stops, you’ll have to decide for yourself which tour you would like to do. The DMZ Train Tour is a little cheaper than the bus tours from Seoul. However, you miss out on some information that the bus tour guides talks about on the bus ride to and from Seoul. You also won’t have a guide to accompany you at Dorasan Station.
By taking the train, you avoid getting stuck in traffic. The tour from Dorasan Station also starts later as you get back into Seoul 17.26. This is late compared to the bus tours were you can be back as early as 14.00. This means that you can continue your sightsing alone for a couple of hours.
Whatever tour you decide to take, I’m sure you’ll have an amazing day and learn more about the relationship between North and South Korea.