Although I’ve spent the past two years living in South Korea, I actually knew about North Korea long before its Southern counterpart. From news journalists discussing tensions between the North and the South, to videos of North Korean celebratory parades, South Korea always seemed to be pushed into the background, and whenever ‘Korea’ was mentioned, the assumption was that the country being discussed was North Korea.
So, naturally, North Korea garners a lot of curiosity not only in my home country, but worldwide. And for a country which is so often in the media spotlight, I feel so little is actually known about it still to this day.
When the Armistice agreement was finalised between North and South Korea in 1953, the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) was created to separate the two countries: a 2-km wide zone forbidden to military personnel and untouched by people for around 60 years. This truce line extends from East to West, with barbed wire fences running along the boundary. Within this area are multiple cities and places of interest which tourists are able to visit. It’s important to note that due to the nature of the DMZ, entrance to this zone requires visitors to bring identification and/or a passport.
In 2017, I got the chance to take a tour to the DMZ via a company called KORIDOOR. If you are interested in visiting the DMZ, I would recommend booking with a tour company and doing a full-day tour as many places along the DMZ are restricted to tour programs only.
Registration for these tours are available in specific locations depending on the county/city the attraction is in. If you wish to visit multiple places along the DMZ, it can become quite complicated trying to register for the tours individually. So, it is infinitely easier booking with a tour company and letting them make the necessary preparations for each visitor respectively!
I decided to choose KORIDOOR because they offered jam-packed full-day tours visiting the DMZ, JSA (Joint Security Area), the 3rd tunnel, Dora observatory, and Dorasan station. Phew. To book a tour, you must reserve a space on either a full-day or half-day tour. For the DMZ/JSA tours, there are two departure locations: Seoul (Yongsan) and Pyeongtaek (Humphreys).
I took the full-day tour from Seoul, departing at 7:30am (though you are required to arrive at the KORIDOOR office 30 minutes prior to departure) and returning at 3:30pm. It’s important to note that the tour does not allow children under 10 years of age to participate and has a strict dress code for visitors, so be sure to check out the specific requirements before the tour date.
On the day of the tour, our first stop was Camp Bonifas, a United Nations military post close to the DMZ boundary zone. There, we watched a video about the DMZ and its history before driving to the JSA Visitor Centre, where a member of the U.S. military briefed us on the tour route and appropriate behaviour of visitors. As well as our guide, we had a U.S soldier present for the entire duration of the tour.
It was the first time I had been beyond Seoul in terms of a Northern region in South Korea, and I was struck by the tall fences running along the Han river which were topped with barbed wire. Military outposts were positioned along the way as we made the trip to the city of Paju in Gyeonggi-do province. The trip was beginning to feel a little too real – I’ll admit I was nervous.
Located in the city of Paju in a district called Gunnae, Panmunjeom (판문점) or the JSA is mostly known for the peace talks in 1951 and 1953 that resulted in the aforementioned Armistice agreement as well as the negotiations held there by North Korea and the UNC (United Nations Command). As you can imagine, it’s a hotspot for tourists.
The JSA left me feeling nervous yet intrigued. Standing in single file, people can witness North and South Korean soldiers as they face each other, unrestricted by a physical barrier. Ahead of visitors lies North Korea, visible beyond the ankle-length wall signifying the border line. As the South Korean soldiers face towards the North, a sole North Korean soldier looks towards the South.
As part of the tour, I got the chance to stand on North Korean soil within the safety of the UN conference building. The entire building is in fact condensed into a single room. Facing vertically across the border, half of it lies in South Korea while the other half lies beyond the border in North Korea.
Furnishing the room is a long, polished table with the United Nations flag in the middle. As soon as you walk past the halfway point of the table, you’re officially in North Korea! There are two doors leading into the building, one leading to South Korea and the other leading to North Korea.
As our tour group was in the UN conference building, I noticed people moving outside the windows on the right-hand side. Looking out, I was shocked to see a group of North Korean soldiers standing with their backs facing the next tour group, with one North Korean soldier as their photographer. I managed to take a few photos myself before a North Korean soldier photobombed me by standing in front of the window.
After the excitement of the JSA, it was time to head back to the tour bus and continue our journey. The next stop: the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel (제3땅굴)!
The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel was discovered in 1978 after an explosion underground was detected. It is one of four tunnels found along the DMZ line. The 3rd tunnel is only 27 miles (44 km) from Seoul and crossed 1,427 feet (435 metres) into South Korea’s side of the DMZ, past the boundary line. It’s believed that the purpose of this tunnel was to stage an attack on Seoul, South Korea’s capital city. It took 4 whole months to find and intercept the tunnel – crazy, right?!
Here, people can experience the narrow long tunnel for themselves, donning a bright yellow hardhat before braving the steep incline downwards. I would recommend wearing or bringing a light jacket even in summer as it can get pretty cold the further down you go! Persevere, though! At the bottom, you can walk as close as possible to the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), but the actual line is blocked by three concrete barricades.
Photography is prohibited inside the tunnel.
After a brief stop for lunch, we headed to the Dora observatory (도라전망대), which first opened for visitors in 1987. At the observatory, locations including the infamous Peace Village ‘Kijong-dong’ (기정동) are visible. Binoculars can be used for a fee of 500₩ which allows for a few minutes to spot (provided the weather cooperates) the aforementioned Peace Village, Cooperation Farm, and Gaeseong City, to name a few.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to go on a day with clear skies! With the binoculars, I managed to see the Peace Village, a.k.a the Propaganda Village. As I watched, North Koreans were going about their daily business. Donned in colourful clothing, some people were farming, others walking to their destination, and a few rode bicycles. The scene in front of me struck me as very typical and ordinary.
The village, according to South Korea, is in fact uninhabited, and in the 1950s, it was created to promote an idealisation of North Korean life as well as house North Korean soldiers. However, North Korea states it has around 200 local families residing there, and has various education facilities.
The most notable part of this village is the 525 feet (160 metre) iconic flagpole displaying the North Korean flag.
Our final stop was Dorasan station (도라산역), the northernmost stop on South Korea’s railway system. Situated on the Gyeongui line, this station formally connected Seoul to Pyeongyang, the capital city of North Korea. For an added 1,000₩ fee, visitors can go onto the actual platform which used to run directly to Pyeongyang.
When I visited in 2017, the platform was filled with the sound of music coming from multiple speakers. Modern Korean music covered the silence of the disused railway line. Or, what should have been silence. Over the sound of the speakers, I could hear the faint sound of singing, similar to the chanting of people singing national anthems.
I was told that North Korea often play propaganda music from locations close to the DMZ line and this can be heard from Dorasan station. In retaliation, South Korea also plays music. Both countries in the midst of a truce, having a music battle. Surreal!
At 2pm, it was time to depart. We arrived at KORIDOOR’s Tour office in Yongsan at 3:30pm exhausted and mentally restless.
To this day, I find it difficult to describe my feelings about the experience. It was fascinating and yet awful, the suffering of those who have family on the other side of the border poignant in my mind throughout the trip. No situation is hopeless, and with the recent events concerning the North and South Korean leaders, reunification may yet happen in our lifetime.
Interested in finding out more? Check out the VisitKorea website: @dmz, @jsa, @thirdtunnel, @doraobservatory, @dorasanstation and the KORIDOOR website for more information about the different DMZ/JSA tours available: @koridoor.