The Demilitarized Zone Tour

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a weapons-free buffer zone between North and South Korea. The area was established on July 27, 1953 when the Armistice Agreement was signed during the Korean War, and includes a 2 kilometer-wide stretch of land on both north and south of the line. The DMZ extends largely from Gyeonggi-do to Gangwon-do, including seven different cities and smaller counties of Paju, Yeoncheon, Cheorwon, Hwacheon, Yanggu, Inje and Goseong. The zone has been protected from human disturbance for more than 6 decades and has unintentionally become a haven for wildlife, making it a popular destination for nature lovers.Nowhere is the tension between North and South Korea more palpable than in the no-man’s-land known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. As a divided nation, only 2.5 miles (4 km) separate the North from the South at what is the most heavily armed border on earth. The 150-mile (241-km) zone has served as a buffer since the 1953 cease-fire agreement between the United Nations and North Korea that put the Korean War on hold.


There are many tour companies throughout Seoul running these tours, offering visits to various historically significant sites along the border for between 40,000 and 130,000 won ($35 to $115) depending on where they stop.. Because of the sensitive nature of the JSA, tours there require advanced notification of participants at least three days in advance.

Traveling out of Seoul and toward the DMZ leads you along the Han River where constantly manned guard towers are space about every 100 meters. You can see how vital these towers are to the security of Seoul. There have been amphibious encroachments into the city by North Korean operatives using the river. Nonchalantly, that North Korea presently has the capability to destroy Seoul in less than two hours. Pyongyang has certainly threatened on numerous occasions to turn Seoul into a “sea of flames,” but would a modern country like South Korea really be powerless to stop a destructive attack from the North on their most important city?

Far from completely creating a manufactured view of the North, the tour’s first stop is a museum with an observation deck where one could look directly at a small farming village across the DMZ. The museum housed artifacts including treaties between the two countries, North Korean military medals, currency, and even soju, Korea’s national liquor. There are also symbols of reunification, including examples of countries that were once divided. Some of these are inspiring (Germany) and some are less so (Yemen). The most interesting symbol of reunification is the imagined “Seoul-Pyongyang-Paris” bullet train, which the Museum suggested would take tourists from Korea to Europe as soon as reunification was achieved. Dorasan Station located in another part of the DMZ did indeed once connect the North and South by train. It is, however, understandable why a rail link between the North and South might figure prominently in the imagination of some South Koreans, South Korea currently has no land borders, aside from the one with the North.

These tours take place daily. Anyone who goes to the observation deck cannot help but wonder what those on the other side of the border think about the gawking tourists watching them. With the lack of context provided by the tour, watching these people is really just an opportunity to write whatever preconceptions we had about life in to the North on to these people across the border from you. To some, they may have look like suffering laborers, slaves to a dictatorial regime. More likely they were just regular farmers doing their job and making the most of their difficult lives.

After the museum, you head to the Bridge of Freedom located adjacent to Imjingak Park. During the Korean War, the bridge was a place where defecators could cross from the North to the South, knowing that they that they may never be able to go to the other side again. Since the end of the war, families would come to the sight to remember their relatives from whom war had separated them. Despite the sadness associated with its history, the area has a carnival like atmosphere. For most Koreans, those memories are much more distant that they were in the last century, so to keep the location attracted for the younger generation an amusement park, complete with a Viking ship has been built near the bridge.

This Tour includes a stop at an observation site along the DMZ and the third infiltration tunnel, one of the numerous tunnels from which members of the North Korean Army have tried to infiltrate the South. 

As seen from the overlook at the top of the Museum, the contrast between the two sides of the DMZ is stark. Within sight of the viewing platform are both the dense skyline of Seoul and the vast expanse of suburbs surrounding it. Turning 90 degrees and facing the North revealed a small farming community with a few crudely built structures, some of which lack roofs. There are about 20 North Koreans working on the farm. The area of the DMZ near Seoul is one of the most populated parts of the DMZ owing to the fertile farming made possible by the Han River.

 The over 1,000-foot-tall Ryugyong Hotel, the city’s centerpiece, has remained unfinished for decades.  The bridge itself is next to a rice patty. Its blocked entrance is covered in prayer flags, some of them new, many of them faded.

The two Koreas are certainly different worlds. Over 60 years of separation has had a dramatic effect. The languages they both share, although still mutually intelligible, have diverged. Even physiologically, South Koreans are taller than North Koreans. 

A summary of the text of the travelogue:
Devan Hawkins