The Demilitarized Zone, aka the DMZ, has historically been a site of strife and division since its creation in the 1950s. A 150+ mile-long stretch of land between North and South Korea, this boundary line intersects the 38th parallel and demarcates a cease-fire line drawn from an armistice agreement at the tenuous conclusion of the Korean War.
As per the armistice agreement, this 2.5-mile-wide borderland is subject to military personnel and weaponry quotas for both North and South Korea. The territories right outside the DMZ on both sides, however, have major military surveillance.
While some tourists have aspirations to visit North Korea, for most of us the DMZ is as close as we're going to get. As a tourist, it is possible to visit the South Korean side of the DMZ. However, there are a few things you need to be prepared for before making your way north of Seoul to one of the most fortified borders in the world.
No Solo Trips! — You Must Book A Tour To See The DMZ
First and foremost, you cannot individually visit the DMZ; you must book a tour through an official tour company since the DMZ is a heavily military-surveilled space.
The tour company is responsible for your transit via motor coach the hour journey north of Seoul and back, and it is required of them to have a passenger manifest for inspection at both entry and exit to the civilian-controlled space near the DMZ.
Sometimes, your guide will even have a personal connection to the DMZ and its history, making the experience all the more insightful and that much more heartbreaking.
Another quick tip: Due to Covid-19, the DMZ is subject to extremely tight visitation quotas from the South Korean government, so that may mean a really early start to your day (as early as a 6:15 am meet-up time).
The good news is that, despite your early start, the first stop on these DMZ tours where your tour guide arranges tickets also has small cafés, food stands, and convenience stores to grab a coffee or a bite to eat before heading out on your bigger adventure for the day.
DMZ Packing Essentials
While you may only be gone for a day trip to the DMZ, there are some things you absolutely need to bring with you to ensure a seamless journey.
Paramount among your packing needs for the day is your passport. You cannot enter the civilian-controlled areas around the DMZ without your passport.
You cannot use a photocopy or a picture of your passport. You MUST bring your physical passport with you.
If you fail to bring your passport with you, your entire bus cannot enter the tour areas, so your tour guide will ask you at the start of your tour if you brought it with you or not.
If you forgot, do not be shy and let your guide know, so you can be disembarked and rescheduled. You must present your passport for inspection by South Korean military personnel at entry and exit of the civilian-controlled areas.
Even if you forgot to bring anything else with you, at least you can get by for the day if you brought your passport. However, if you want to have a fuller, more comfortable experience, then you may want to bring or purchase some water (there is a point of some relatively decent physical activity) and wear comfortable shoes that prevent you from slipping. There is also some fascinating souvenir shopping (the area is famous for its chocolate-covered soybeans) so bring your wallet with you too!
Sites You'll Visit On A Demilitarized Zone Tour
Most tours will visit some variation of the following sites. If you elect for a longer tour, you most likely will visit some other sites related to the Korean War or the DMZ nearby.
Some "standard" additional sites are also still closed for Covid-19 as well, but for the most part, all tours will visit these highlight sites.
Imjingak Pyeonghwa Nuri Park
Your first stop at Imjingak Pyeonghwa Nuri Park is filled with historical artifacts, commemorative statues, and memorials dedicated to, not only the Korean War but to the idea of peace and reconciliation throughout history.
Here, you have the chance to visit the Manghaedan Altar, a permanent ancestral rite altar for Koreans whose families remain in the North, the reconstructed Bridge of Freedom, and a memorial for Korean Comfort Women.
You'll also see the carcass of a bombed-out train that, up until recently, was abandoned within the DMZ, and relocated to the park as a reminder of the devastation of war. These sites, along with many more artifacts within the park, provide sobering reminders of Korean and world history.
Once you make your way through the various memorials, the indoor park facilities are where you can find some breakfast spots, use the restroom, and grab a bottle of water before heading out to the rest of the DMZ sites.
This is where that water and comfortable shoes will come in handy! Infiltration Tunnel is one of a series of tunnels built by South Koreans to quite literally intercept tunnels found that were dug from the North Korean side of the DMZ.
You'll get the chance to walk down the tunnel until it reaches the North Korean dug side. Once you get to this point, the tunnel gets quite cramped and low hanging, evidence of crude digging.
Don't let that fool you though; a tunnel of this size is meant to transport an entire division of soldiers into Seoul in an hour!
The tunnel does not lead into North Korea anymore though; there is a physical barrier now that disallows people from straying too far. The walk is quite steep, and since it's underground, groundwater can make the floor quite slippery, so good footwear is helpful in this part of the tour.
The highlight of the DMZ tour is the Dora Observatory, a glass structure and observation deck located on top of Dora Mountain (Dorasan). The observatory features high-powered viewing binoculars that allow visitors a peek into North Korea.
On a clear day, the views will astound you! You may be able to see the bronze statues of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of North Korea's dictator dynasty, the North Korean "propaganda village" located right inside the DMZ, a large Hollywood-esque sign that reads "our country is #1", the largest flagpole in the world, and North Korean farms.
Most eerie among the views is the abandoned Kaesong Industrial Complex, a manufacturing factory venture that allowed South Korean supervision of North Korean labor in a cooperative, peaceful arrangement that boosted morale for both countries.
The complex closed in 2016 following nuclear tests from North Korea. Now it remains a haunting reminder of a failed experiment of unity.
A Note On the Joint Security Area (as of August 2022): previous to 2020, tours ran to the Joint Security Area or the JSA, the only part of the DMZ where military personnel from North and South Korea stand literally facing one another.
The JSA is the site of diplomatic meetings and dignitary visits to the DMZ. Currently, the JSA is still closed to international tourists and is just beginning to open to Korean domestic tourists with even stricter quota caps than the other sites around the DMZ.