Are you planning a visit to North and South Korea’s disputed border, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)? Nowhere in the world will you find such a bizarre situation as here. Since 1953, former Korea has been a divided country. And where is the solution?
A contribution to a solution you will not find here. You will find a contribution on how to book a tour to this highly secured zone and what you should pay attention to. And what places will you visit during your tour? But first, we start with a short introduction to the conflict and the situation of the DMZ through the years…
Important: Before you decide to visit the DMZ, realize that this is no ordinary attraction. At any moment something could happen, causing war to break out between the north and south. How realistic is it really? The chances are slim since South Korea is backed by the United States (and North Korea by China). But an accident is in a small corner….
In this article about the DMZ
- History: the creation of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)
- DMZ: More than 75 years ago and still conflicts?
- Second Korean War?
- DMZ and JSA: How and which tour to book?
- Difference DMZ and JSA tour?
- Sightseeing: 4 sites of the DMZ/JSA tour
- The DMZ? Yes or No?
This page about the DMZ contains affiliate links. This means that if you make a booking through one of the links on this website, Travel4history will give you a small compensation. There are no extra costs for you!
The creation of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)
When the Japanese were defeated in 1945, ending World War II, the Russians and Americans divided Korea. The northern part was under the authority of the Soviet Union (Russia), the southern part was under American control. A temporary solution, both countries said, and the border came to be at the 38th parallel.
But the end of World War II marked the very beginning of a new confrontation: the Cold War. America (Capitalism) and Russia (Communism) faced each other and tried to fight the ideology of the other in the world. The Cold War was not a real war, but it was just a hair’s breadth away from producing World War III. So how could the conflict between two superpowers in Korea be resolved?
The answer came in 1950. Stalin gave permission to his superior in North Korea, Kim Il-Sung to invade South Korea. The Korean War (1950-1953) had begun. Within rapid succession, much of South Korea had been conquered. However, after a surprise attack at Incheon, the odds turned. Kim Il-Sung and his army were pushed back towards China. When the Chinese started helping the North Koreans, a cease-fire was finally declared in 1953. The 38th parallel became the border between the two countries. But one that is 4 kilometers wide, 248 kilometers long, and the most heavily guarded you can find in the world. Still, want to come and visit?
DMZ: More than 75 years ago and still conflicts
The conflict in West Germany and East Germany was also the result of the Cold War. But where the separation of this European country lasted from 1949 to 1990, the separation of Korea still continues. And occasionally conflicts still take place on the border. Once in a while, a North Korean soldier tries to cross a border at Panmunjeom. For example, in 2012, a North Korean soldier shot and killed two colleagues and crossed the border. And in 2017, an attempted escape led to a firefight, and the fleeing North Korean soldier had to be hospitalized in critical condition in South Korea. Therefore, attempting to flee North Korea is not a piece of cake. And it always has major consequences for the family of the fleeing soldier.
Second Korean War?
Between 1966 and 1969, a number of serious conflicts occurred that could almost be called the Second Korean War. Tensions between North and South Korea led to a low point in the political relationship when some firefights took place on the border. However, the Second Korean War then remained out of the question….
In 1968 Korean assassins managed to get close to the official residence of President Park Chung-he. A few hundred meters before the official residence, the blue house, they were stopped by the police. How they managed to get so close to the official residence unseen remained a mystery.
Readers’ tip: Another conflict between North and South Korea involves a North Korean submarine in 1994. It ran aground along the east coast and a 49-day manhunt was the result. You can read more about this conflict in the article: Tongil Park, Gangneung | Espionage! A North Korean submarine
Booking a DMZ tour? Here’s what to look out for…
By now you know more about the origins of the border and the conflicts that have taken place here. Still, my experience at the DMZ has been positive. I went there in October 2017, at a time when Trump and Kim Yong-Un were not very good friends. For example, Trump called the North Korean leader “Little Rocket Man” and vice versa, the U.S. president was called “senile lunatic.” Also, North Korea was testing missiles in the Sea of Japan. Not a very pleasant thought perhaps, but I survived….
If you plan to book a tour to the DMZ, do so well in advance (month). And create a backup plan. Tours are conducted almost every day, but if something happens it is canceled. Also, at the last minute, there can be talks between the two countries and then not everything is accessible to tourists.
Difference between DMZ and JSA tours?
There is a clear difference between the DMZ tour and the JSA tour. JSA stands for Joint Security Area. This is the official area of the blue houses (Panmunjeom) where North and South Korea hold occasional talks. A JSA tour goes to this special place. For just the DMZ tour, this does not apply and you will mainly go to some other places along the border. A half DMZ tour may cost about 40 euros, but you will not go to the real border between South and North Korea. So pay close attention to that!
I booked my tour with Koridoor. They offer several tours that go to the DMZ and/or JSA: from half a day to a full day and at different times. A day tour costs over 100 euros. Below are two options that you can book online.
GetYourGuide offers several tours, from half a day to a full day. Here you go only to the DMZ and not to the JSA. The advantage is that these tours are cheaper than if you do go to the JSA.
Viator has a wide range of tours that go to both the DMZ and the JSA. Would you like to see the blue houses (JSA), then you can book a tour here. For planning purposes, this can only be done between Tuesday and Friday.
4 places of the DMZ/JSA tour
Below is a brief explanation of the places you will go to during the DMZ/JSA tour. But beware: not all places will actually be visited, depending on the situation at that moment. Furthermore, you will also go to a beautiful viewpoint (Dora Observatory) where you can enjoy the North Korean land…
Dorasan train station: the train from South to North Korea
Dorasan Station is the last train station before you go to North Korea. But of course, you can’t do that at all. This train station was opened in 2002 and today has mostly symbolic value forever becoming one Korea again. In 2007, it was indeed used for a while to bring goods from Kaesong (North Korea). But in 2008 the service was discontinued after North Korea accused South Korea of seeking open confrontation.
From Seoul, a train runs (almost) daily to Dorasan Station: the DMZ train. For online reservations and other information, visit the website of Korail.
The secret North Korean tunnels
In June 1978, South Korea discovered an underground tunnel. North Korea dug several of these tunnels to eventually attack South Korea underground. That plan failed, but South Korea was warned! In total, the South Koreans discovered 4 tunnels.
The tunnel ended up being over 1600 meters long and will also be visited. But don’t worry, the tunnel is blocked by South Korea, so don’t be afraid of North Korean soldiers. People, who are claustrophobic… maybe skip it for a while?
In 1976, the United Nations wanted to cut down a tree that was blocking the view of the area. 2 Americans were ordered to carry this out. When North Korean soldiers got wind of this they drove up to the 2 Americans and killed them with that ax. The reason for this attack was that Kim Il Sung planted this tree himself… A few days later the tree was cut down by the United Nations.
This poplar tree is located near the “Bridge of No-return. Through this bridge, South and North Korea regularly exchanged people. During my tour, we did not visit this place, and according to reports, it is still not accessible to visitors…
JSA: Joint Security Area
Finally, a visit to the blue houses of the JSA. This is the official border where South and North Korea hold occasional talks. First, you get a general explanation of 20 minutes in which you are made aware of the dangers if you do not follow the orders. Finally, you get a contract pushed under your nose that says no one else is responsible for your (foolish) actions.
And then it’s time to enter the disputed border between South and North Korea, including the blue house. You get to walk through the whole house, which means you’ve been in also briefly in North Korea. But please do not open the door on the North Korean side. Just, for your own safety!
Planning a tour to the border between South and North Korea?
In this article, you’ve learned more about the history of the DMZ, how to book a tour and what you can see here as. A tour to the DMZ is educational and bizarre because you do go to a potential war zone. After all, both countries have never signed a peace agreement. However, the chances of anything happening are extremely low. And should there be any tensions, of course, the tours will not take place.
Therefore, I would definitely recommend booking a tour, even if it is just for creating awareness of what is going on here. But remember, you can’t solve the conflict….
And what impression did the JSA/DMZ tour leave on you? Feel free to leave a comment below!