Visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in South Korea was one of the main reasons we decided to fly to Seoul. We have both always been fascinated with the history between North and South Korea. We signed up for a day tour that included a complete visit of the sites in the DMZ area and then an afternoon visit the Joint Security Area (JSA).
These were ran as two separate tours, the DMZ in the morning and the JSA in the afternoon. This article will talk about what we did and saw in the DMZ zone and how we felt about the tour that we were given. This part of the border is very commercialized and thousands of people visit this area every year from all over the World.
The first stop on our DMZ tour was Imjingak Park. This park is located on the banks of the Imjin River that divides North and South Korea. Just walking though this park you can feel the sad, deep history between the North and South. You cannot help but be drawn to the red, yellow and white ribbons you see blowing in the wind. These ribbons are tied to a chain link fence that surrounds the backside of the park. Even though we were not be able to read what’s written on the ribbons we could understand their meaning placed there by love one’s and left to blow in the wind.
This park was built to console those from both sides who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends and families because of the division, in hopes that someday they will be connected once again. Within the park you can find many memorials to the division, including an original steam locomotive that was shot up and bombed in the war. On the far part of the park you can also get up close to tanks and other equipment used in the war.
Within Imjingak park is the Bridge Of Freedom. This bridge made it’s mark in history when it was used to allow South Korean and American POW’S to cross from North Korea to their freedom in South Korea. Today the bridge is barricaded to prevent crossing into North Korea. The blockade has many ribbons attached to it, much like the chain link fence at the back of the park. The overall view of this bridge was blocked by large trees, so to get a good view you would need to head up to the view point where you can get a bird eyes view of the whole park.
Imjingak park is just outside the DMZ so there’s no military check points before you stop here. This is the first stop of all tours and is the busiest in the mornings and afternoons. To really enjoy this park you would need 1-2 hours. In the tour group you only get 30 minutes.
Into the DMZ
After leaving Imjingak Park, you will officially enter the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). As you pull up to the check point guarded by military personal, that are armed with machine guns, it hits you. You are entering an active war zone. From this point on you will feel the intensity of the area. Military personnel entered our bus to check everyone’s passports as armed guards watched from the outside of the bus. Once the check was completed, we were granted clearance and our bus set off into the DMZ for the rest of our stops.
As you pull into the fenced off area, there’s military personal walking around and your eyes can’t help to fix on the large statue near the building the bus stops at. This structure is called the Peace Statue. It shows the earth cut in half and people holding up the sides trying to put it back together. This is yet another reminder of the divide of Korea.
the building behind the statue is the DMZ Theater and museum. Here you will get a chance to see many displays that pertain to the division of Korea and the history of the DMZ. You will need to sit through an information video about the area and the conflicts that divide the North and South. The video is intense, it shows the destruction of war and how the DMZ acts as a peaceful area.
3rd Infiltration Tunnel
Deep below the border of North and South Korea are four known ‘secret’ tunnels. The tunnels were designed by North Korea as a war tactic to perform a surprise attack on Seoul from North Korea. Each tunnel can easily house 30,000 men per hour, so had they been successful in hiding these tunnels, the invasion would have been devastating for South Korea.
Only four tunnels have been found to date, there’s estimated to be another 20 tunnels. Military personnel are drilling daily in search of other tunnels that could allow North Korea soldiers into the South. When the tunnels were found, North Korea denied the tunnels and stated they were used for coal mining. North Korean prisoners and military personnel hand dug the tunnels though granite without the outside world knowing.
Workers hand pressed coal residue throughout the tunnels so they could state they were coal mining if they were ever found. Your thoughts can’t help to wonder what else they have planned that the South hasn’t located or learned. The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel is one of the only tunnels open to the public for daily tours. This tunnel will take you 240 feet below ground into a shallow and narrow opening.
Before entering the tunnel you will have to go through another security check point. Photos are forbidden within the tunnel and they will take away any cameras that are found. This does not stop people from sneaking in phones for photos. As you walk deeper into the ground you can feel the dampness. This is not an easy walk in a confined dark place, if you are someone who does not do well in those areas this is not for you.
The tunnel varies in heights throughout the walk. You are given hard hats because you will be hitting your head across the top of the tunnel throughout your adventure. There’s one line in and one line out and the entrance is a very steep decline as you enter and a steep climb as you exit.
You can run your hands across the damp walls to feel the coal residue. Just picture hundreds of men sneaking up in the dark of the tunnels to invade the South, the thoughts are chilling. On the military demarcation line, that marks the border between the North and South, you will see three large concrete barricades with barbwire to stop the North Koreans from entering. You can see one of the barricades though a small rusted out window at the end of the tunnel, where you must turn around.
This location is the only place where you can look into North Korea from the South. The view is limited most of the time due to fog or smog. You are not allowed to take photos in this area; they have a large yellow line painted on the ground where you can take photos from. From that line you cannot get a good enough view to take decent photos.
There’s armed guards along that line watching every move. When we showed up we lucked out and they were in middle of changing guards so we cheated and quickly snapped some photos from the lookout platforms before the new guard took his spot on the line. From the outlook you can see the city of Kaesong, the North Korean flag pole; which is the tallest in the World and the North Korean propaganda village situated inside the DMZ.
People have never occupied this village. It was built after the armistice agreement was signed as a ploy by the North Koreans to entice people back to their side if the border. They wanted people to think that life would be better if people came back to that side. The propaganda village has never had residents and is a far cry from what the people experience living on that side of the border.
Dorasan Train Station
The Dorasan Train Station is just outside the DMZ area. This station was built to link South Korea to the rest of the World. They had hopes of it opening in 2008 for the summer Olympic games that were held in Beijing, but it never happened. When it opens, this station will connect South Korea with North Korea and the Trans-Siberian rail system.
Despite their hopes, there are no signs of this train stations opening to travel North. All around the station are large warehouse buildings with empty yards where they would be able to stage goods and imports for shipping. From the outside, it looks like an up-to-date train station but inside it’s quiet and lacking the footsteps of travelers.
Many travelers take photos under the sign that shows the next stop as Pyeongyang, the capital of North Korea. As of today, it is only a tourist attraction on your package DMZ tour and you can get a stamp from this train stain showing that you have passed though this station. This up-to-date sleepy train station is ready to be awakened once the divider between the two countries is amended.
Our overall experience of this part of our tour was just okay. It was great to be able to see these sites, but it is very commercialized and there are tons of people. Our guide was a fast talker and rushed us through most of the sites. We realize she has a schedule to keep, but half the time we couldn’t even hear her because of what was going on around us.
We missed a lot of information, as did other travelers that we were with. The museum was something we rushed through so fast, I didn’t even get to read one display. I think that it is missing the point of letting people experience the DMZ, we should get a chance to learn more about the history and read the displays.
After spending the morning touring through the DMZ, we were dropped back at Imjingak Park for lunch and to meet up with our tour to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjeom. Of the 50 some odd people on the bus, we were the only ones that would be extending the tour to this area.
We are happy we signed up for the JSA visit, as this was a much better experience than the first part of the day. Despite the rushed tour, we still enjoyed being able to experience the DMZ and it is an experience we will not soon forget.
Read all about our visit to Panmunjeom in the JSA on the second part of our day.
Did you have a similar experience at the DMZ? Tell us about it below.