The DMZ or Korean Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea is just 4 km wide and lies on the outskirts of Seoul. I'll admit that we were a little fearful of visiting the DMZ because of rising tensions at the time of our visit in May 2017. When we were riding the bus from Seoul Airport to the city, the TV screens on the bus were showing news and a chill went up my spine when I saw pictures of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, with thumbs up and a big smile after a successful missile test. It is possible to visit the DMZ through an organized half day tour with ILoveSeoulTour.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Seoul is definitely a city worth visiting. Check out our 4 day itinerary to explore the South Korean capital.
Imjingak - Gateway to the DMZ
Our mini-van sized bus from Seoul arrived at Imjingak, the gateway to the DMZ in about an hour. We had about 30 minutes to explore on our own before a special bus picked us up to take us into the DMZ itself. A barbed wire fence laden with colorful bits of ribbon bearing hopeful messages was striking.
At exactly 9:40 am, we boarded the official coach bus that would take us to the DMZ. We were accompanied by our tour guide, Ginny.
Dorasan Station, The End of the Train Line in South Korea
Our first stop was Dorasan Station, the last train station in South Korea. The train station is essentially deserted with one train going to and from Seoul each day. South Koreans are hopeful that one day the situation with North Korea will improve so the train can be connected up with Pyongyang and then onward into China, Asia, and even provide a land route to Europe.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush visited Dorasan Station in 2002 when there was more hope of a reunited Korea than there is today.
Peeking into North Korea at Odusan Unification Observatory
Our next stop was Odusan Unification Observatory. It was hazy the day that we visited, but we were still able to pop a coin into a set of binoculars and peer into North Korea.
South Korean Megaphone Propaganda
Speaking of propaganda, our guide Ginny, told us that South Korea often broadcasts messages to the North. The messages are passed using old-fashioned technology: a megaphone. While we were visiting, a message poured forth. Ginny told us that sometimes they broadcast K-Pop songs from the DMZ to give North Koreans a peek at what they are missing given the ascetic living conditions in the North.
Go Underground in the Third Tunnel
Our next stop in the DMZ was the Third Tunnel. After the Korean War, North Korea secretly started tunneling toward the south. The third tunnel was discovered in 1978. It's 1.64 kilometers long and 2 meters by 2 meters in height and width. Ginny told us that 30,000 soldiers could pass through the tunnel in an hour with light weapons.
We had the chance to don hard hats and walk about 600 meters into the tunnel (photos were not allowed). I remember children visiting on a school trip saying "hello" and reaching out to high-five us as we passed.
The Third Tunnel site features a visitor's center, museum, and a park with some art installations.
Turning the DMZ into an Unlikely Tourist Attraction
Our last stop on the tour was at the Passby Unification Village for a quick shopping and snack break before the drive back to Seoul. The shop was actually selling some products made in North Korea including North Korean wine. We opted to leave the wine on the shelf.
It struck us that South Korea has effectively turned their part of the DMZ into a tourist attraction including the opportunity to purchase souvenirs. I was really surprised given the heightened tensions in the region when we visited.
I definitely think it's worth visiting the DMZ to learn more about Korea's troubled history and hopes for a united future.
Traveling to the DMZ with ILoveSeoulTour
The ILoveSeoulTour Morning DMZ tour runs from about 8 am - 2 pm with a hotel pick-up at locations in central Seoul. This tour is open to tourists of all nationalities and could be booked fairly last minute (we booked just a few days ahead). Other tours go deeper into the DMZ (including the JSA) but must be booked farther in advance and require background checks and approvals first. The ILoveSeoulTour Morning DMZ tour cost $45 USD per person at the time of writing.