Visiting the DMZ (The Demilitarized Zone) in North Korea and South Korea – The Story From Both Sides

“The scariest place on Earth” – Former US President, Bill Clinton, during his visit in 1993.

Military Demarcation Line

I remember the first time I heard and saw what the DMZ was about. I was around 15 years old and watched Michael Palin go there on one of his travel series called ‘Full Circle’. He stood in a bland looking room, spoke of the history of the Korean War, told us how he had to basically sign his life away on a piece of paper, and then crossed an area of the room saying “Here I’m in North Korea,” and then moving his feet just a few inches said, “now I’m in South Korea.”

“He’s standing in two countries. At the same time! Incredible!” was my immediate response, and then I thought about it some more. I was shocked that a divided country had such a scary, military armed border. I was scared that a visit there put your life at risk in case of any outbreaks of gunfire, fighting and attacks.  I was fascinated to find it all out for myself one day, wanting to be just as big an explorer as him.

The desire to visit the world’s most heavily fortified border and learn first-hand what it stands for, never left me. What I saw on that one televised episode intrigued me – it wasn’t something that was fun, but it was something that was very important – and my continuing interest in society, politics and travel increased my need to see it for myself even more.

The DMZ is a four-kilometer wide belt stretching 250 km, cutting the Korean peninsula almost in half at the 38th parallel, and was put in place in 1953 as a ceasefire to the Korean War. The Chinese and North Koreans pulled back 2km north and the UN forces 2km to the south, creating a ‘no-man’s land’. Tanks, heavy artillery and mines exist on the Northern and Southern Limit Lines that are lined with barbed wire fences, but not within the DMZ itself, as was part of the armistice agreement. Running through the middle of the 4km belt is the Military Demarcation Line (the ‘actual’ border) and here sits Panmunjeom, the “truce village” housing the Joint Security Area (JSA) – where negotiations between both sides took place and where today, democracy and communism now stand face-to-face in animosity. The JSA is the area you visit, where you enter the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room – the only place where anyone can freely ‘cross’ the Demarcation Line.

As of September 2013, I had seen the DMZ from both sides. For me, it’s how I wanted to see it and understand it – from the TWO viewing points in Panmunjom.  I stood on the North Korean side in November 2012, and in South Korea more recently. However, despite the viewing lines being only meters away from each other and the room you enter being the same one, they were both very different experiences.

DMZ, Korea

The DMZ in North Korea (DPRK)

Visiting the DMZ from North Korea was filled with adrenalin, and a little fear. Not only were we in the world’s most closed country, but we were also on the world’s most dangerous border between two countries still technically at war. To say we were on our guard here, despite being in the safety of a group, is an understatement. It took us around three hours to reach Panmunjeom from the Capital of Pyongyang, where we all waited at a busy check in area (complete with souvenir shops) as we watched our North Korean guides have their passports swiped firmly out of their hands.

It was time to get on the coach and drive the short way to the JSA, driving through a long road lined with large square boulders that would fall and block the road should any sign of attack be imminent (the same tactic exists on the South Korean side).  It felt tense, yet we were calmed upon arrival by the opportunity to look through historical artifacts, documents, and historical boards in a building designated as a North Korea museum – propaganda and all. It was, in fact, where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed.

Our North Korean military guide was an approachable man, and not half as scary as I imagined him to be. He spoke the North Korean version of events, yet it wasn’t as propaganda heavy as other situations we had found ourselves in. It felt far more serious here, being so close to the ‘opposition’.

Taking us through to the viewing platform, through an imposing, beige building, we all stood on the steps of the building looking out over to the building on the South Korean side. It was surprisingly calm, yet it felt incredibly eerie. No South Korean soldiers were present, just North Korean soldiers keeping guard. There wasn’t the grand face-off we all hear about – I guess this is toned down during visits, with designated times given to both sides for tourist arrivals. Only when we are gone, do they stand literally face-to-face with one another.

After 10 minutes or so, we were then taken into the blue hut – the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room that straddles the Demarcation Line. We were allowed to sit at the table (the ‘line’ cutting through the middle of the table) and, watched over by our guide ,we all sat on either side of the table shaking hands across it, marking the peace we all wish for. One North Korean guard stood staunchly guarding the door that lead to the South Korean side of the JSA, his fierce and set expression creating an atmosphere in the room that signalled this as very serious business. It was a day none of us could forget…

DMZ JSA Table Korea

The DMZ in South Korea

In South Korea, visiting the DMZ is huge for tourism. Here, you can choose from all multitude of tours, from full day visits or JSA only tours to hikes and tours with North Korean defectors.I decided on a full day tour in order to see one of the observatories (where you can look out over North Korea), the ‘Friendship Bridge’, a train station that links both countries via a single line and The 3rd Tunnel – a 1,632m tunnel dug by the North Koreans, from which they could pass through into Seoul within an hour and invade. The day would end with a visit to the JSA.

All in all, the first half of the day (except for the tunnel) was like a day trip to Disneyland. This is at no fault of the tour company (who merely facilitate your transport there between each site and who provide knowledgeable who tell you the history on the coach along the way) but the fault of who is behind the Korean tourism surrounding this particular area, or the government, or whoever thought it was acceptable to build a fairground next to the area where the bridge is, or who ever thought it was acceptable to turn the Observation Deck into a zoo-like atmosphere, surrounded by the screams of people looking through telescopes exclaiming, “Oh.My.God. I just saw an actual North Korean.” Yes, this really happened.

Never once did I feel it was a ‘serious’ place or a serious issue. For most, it’s a bit of fun peering into the hermit kingdom, and while people on guard cannot change the ignorance and stupidity of some of the tourists who visit, there could be more educational markers put in place and the enforcement of more rules to encourage a little respect. It was then I felt that ‘reunification’ was nothing more than a throw away term, later confounded by many South Koreans I met who said “Many of us are not bothered by it”.

However, the trip to the JSA left me with mixed feelings. The US soldier, our guide, was young, knowledgeable and delivered a fantastic presentation that was factual and historically sound. We were informed of some rules to follow – we were not to take pictures of any North Korean guards that may appear in the building in the background, and not to make any faces or hand gestures which they can film and use as propaganda, or as a means of retaliation.

Which meant nothing when our guide stood before us as we lined up on the steps and pointed to a building and said “That’s the building where the North Korean guards sometimes hang out of and make <does throat slitting gesture> to us.” A contradiction of rules, no? North Korean guards were present; they lurked in the shadows and behind the pillars on the beige building I had once stood at months before. Whilst I felt safe, the viewing point time felt unnerving, especially being around US soldiers who had a ‘jack the lad’ attitude. I guess it was only a good thing that we were not allowed to stand there for too long.

Back in the blue building (the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room), we were once again told about the DMZ and the guard line, except we were not allowed to sit at the table, only stand around it. South Korean guards stood in their fierce Taekwondo stance – something of which they are famous for – yet tourists giggled and replicated the pose for photos – something we would never have dreamt of doing on the North Korean side. I don’t think many really understood exactly where they were…

DMZ tour south korea

A visit to the DMZ is without a doubt an eye-opener and a must see for those interested in history and current affairs. While a visit to North Korea is undoubtably going to be fuelled by a more serious attitude, where you have to be guarded and ‘on your best behaviour’ at all times, I sadly think people miss the point when visiting on the South Korean side, with a few people around me expressing disappointment with the way things were handled. It’s a given that the majority of visitors will visit from South Korea, and so I would personally cut out the full day tour and just stick with the specific JSA tour, yet be prepared for mixed signals on regarding the seriousness of the current situation. However, for those with a deep interest in what is going on here, you will certainly take a lot more from it.

I visited the DMZ on the North Korean side during my trip to the country with Koryo Tours. In South Korea, I was invited on the DMZ day tour with VIP Travel, who knew of my desire to see it from the other side. Both are companies I highly recommend, yet neither had any influence on my opinions in this article which, as always, remain my own.

Comments

  1. Michael Windham says:

    Hi Miss Becki….bravo to you for taking on one of the most threatening experiences available to any traveler in the world today. You have the guts to be a US Marine. If you’d have been one when I was in Vietnam I would have been proud to have had you by my side!
    This explanation is the only way I have to say how proud I am of your courage to go where most people don’t dare go!
    You’re gorgeous to!!! Lol.
    Seriously … This article was an incredible read. I could feel the tension on the north side and on the south side you weren’t anywhere near as interested which left me thinking of it just the way it actually is.
    I wish you could have been in Soul in 1970 the 3 days I was there. I went from Vietnam there with a Korean Rock Marine who was assigned 4 hours a day to teach a group of US Marines teakwondo. He was a 7th dan black belt. You have to be invited to come to this advancement event of upper level belts given only once a year by the masters. He was to get his 8th… He took two students…. I was one if them. They allowed my attempt at my 2nd dan… I passed. He passed on his 8th and broke a hand!! These feats were nothing compared to the masters demonstrations. Things like an 80 year old man throwing 10 killing blows in less than one second. Only way of belief is to have been there. You would never believe the rest. You’re the type person who would be able to relate this type event to the normal reader. I can’t.
    I love reading about your travel. It’s hard for me to sit down and read anymore. I don’t have that problem reading what you write. You’re frigin good! Lol.
    Congrats on your award Becki, you deserve it!

  2. I think you have a fan……

    Really interesting to read about your experience and congrats again on your award. V pleased for you x

  3. Nice overview Becki – the comparison between the two sides was staggering. I agree with a lot of what you say but by far we preferred the North Korea side, we even got to drink a beer on the border next to the NK soldiers (ive an article about that going up on Thursday), yet on the South Korea tour they wouldnt even let us drink water! Also on the North side there were no photo restrictions, yet in the South side we couldnt take photos in some parts (the Third Tunnel for example). Safe travels. Jonny

    • The difference is staggering and many would assume it to be more insightful on the South Korean side. I am too surprised by the photo restrictions, and there should be the same rules for both sides. As mentioned before, I don’t support ‘drinking’ at the DMZ. My tour company would not have supported that and it supports the Disneyland / Tourist Attraction notion that is ruining the essence of what serious tourists visit it for.

    • Not going to lie but I kinda agree with Becki that’s it’s bloody disrespectful for you to be drinking in the DMZ.
      People have died to cross that border, and continue to die trying to flee, and so by drinking I feel you made light of what is actually a pretty big deal to many Koreans, regardless of side.
      It’s the line that was drawn in which families could never cross to see their loved ones and can still not cross in hope of finding better living conditions, something you and I take a bit lightly me thinks.

      If the guards want to speak with you, or not want to, that’s their own prerogative, but drinking – that’s disgraceful mate.

      • I don’t understand why people bother to visit if they 1. Don’t have any deep interest in it? 2. Think a military armed border separating two countries is fun? I know you sometimes go to countries and hear of things to do but… why is this a playground?

        • Thanks for your replies Nicole and Becki – but I have to disagree completely. How can you think it’s not fun? Why did you even go there then? I love travel and want everything to be fun, why would I want to act all serious at the DMZ and succumb to a border which was a brainchild of the USA??

          I grew up in the 1980s in a country torn apart by war so I have my own strong political views on the matter. I worked in politics in the 1990s helping promote both sides of the Belfast religious divide and bring them together during the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Having a beer with both was a big part of that. In reality I actually wished I was able to have a beer with both the North and South Koreans on this border, instead of pretending it’s all serious. I’ve no time for people who can’t forget the past or relax in life. And whether it’s a beer or a coffee or a handshake isn’t the point. We shouldn’t be going to places like the DMZ acting like we’re on a strict guided tour.

          I’m off to Iran and Iraq next would love to know your views when I join the Kurds for a beer or a coffee in the German bar in Erbil ;-)

          We’ll agree to disagree completely.

          Safe travels one and all.

          Jonny

          • The DMZ is not supposed to be ‘fun’. Just like Auschwitz concentration camp, the Hiroshima Memorial Museum and Cambodia’s Killing Fields are not fun. I don’t deny that a lot of travel is to seek out fun, but other times it is there to educate, inform and provide perspective. I didn’t go to the DMZ to have fun. I went because I have a deep interest in the current situation, the politics and the Korean War.

            These situations are completely different to having a beer and chatting with locals in their homes towns, pubs and the like. I had plenty of beers with locals, even two young guys who had once worked at the JSA – a situation that for them was a very difficult time in their lives and not at all fun for them, but which they were happy to chat about.

            Agree to disagree completely. Happy travels. Literally :)

  4. Really interesting to read. I went on a tour from Seoul with the US Army, basically I was the only person on the tour who wasn’t a US veteran so it offered a unique experience. I found the propaganda to be quite full-on, there was no mention of the fact that the south wasn’t even really a democracy until the late 1980s. It was very much good guys versus bad guys. Don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to see it from the North, so I’ll stick to your observations for now :)

    • What an interesting perspective to have been given – would love to know more about your trip there. I agree on the good guys vs the bad guys thing – they both say things about the ‘other side’, which is why I am shocked when many people do not realise that the south pushes out it’s own propaganda too. I actually met some British army guys who had gone on a special tour. It was probably the same one that you went on.

  5. Loved it …the extra mile that you took to understand the two perspectives ! The way you take up your trips and cherish the experience – that gives me lots of inspirations to me. Thanks a ton for the posts !

  6. Great story and cool that you got to both sides to see how they both approach it. It does sound very scary though especially on the NKorean side.

  7. I think it’s sad another example of the lunacy of man , will we ever see a united korea ? with the wide gaps in income it would make the reunification of east Germany and West look like as easy as organising a chook raffle at a beer garden.

  8. Such a great insight here. It is amazing the differences between the North and South side. When you visited the North, did you feel like you actually got to see ‘North Korea’ at all or did it all feel staged? I have heard mixed reports and hope to see it for myself in the future. Great post!

    • It’s very controlled and set-up and a lot is staged, although you obviously see through it and try to work things out. However, when travelling from place to place, you do get to see ‘snippets’ of local life out the window of your bus, and it’s not always pretty. If you are genuinely interested in the history and politics then I would say you would get a lot out of a visit there.

  9. Great report! I loved my time at the DMZ. The best was to fire up my iPhone ‘AroundMe’ app to see all those Wikipedia articles with the incidents over the term of the last 60 years.

  10. This was an incredibly insightful post – thank you so much for sharing! I admit that I do not know a lot about the political histories of North and South Korea, just the odd thing that I hear in the media here and there. I did read a book called “Escape from Camp 14″ which told the tale of one man’s escape from a North Korean prison camp. I would really enjoy visiting both places in my life if it is possible, and before I go I think I will do a lot of reading about the history. If you have any reading material that you could recommend, that would be wonderful. Otherwise, thank you so much for the detailed info! Loving your site!

  11. Thank you for sharing.

  12. Asif Sadiq says:

    Hi Becki.
    Yeah im sat at my desk again plotting my adventures when i should be working.
    Borders are strange places and this one you visited is one of the strangest, Last month i visited Jordan and Bethany beyond the Jordan. One side Israel and the other Jordan and that was strange too, One side seperated by from the other by basically a muddy stream and a tennis net ?? People weren’t hostile to each other, worse than that they were indifferent. I started communicating to the “Other side” mainly by shouting NAMASTE in my broad Yorkshire accent and smiling(Im sure i really confused some people).
    Im not a religous man by any description but im fairly sure JC would be jolly unhappy with the situation if he was around.
    Anyway more surfing the net to decide what to do in Vietnam in two weeks time. Thanks for a really interesting article hope to find inspiration in some of your other articles

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