One of the most unique places in the world, the border that splits the Korean peninsula and its surroundings (the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ) attract hundreds of thousands every year. It’s a no-man area that was created in 1953 as part of the Korean War Armistice. For many, this is the only chance they’ll have to get close to North Korea.
The best way to get access to the area is to obtain a visa for South Korea and travel to its capital Seoul, which is the nearest sizeable urban center. From there, it’s possible to book a tour and explore the several attractions that will make this the experience of a lifetime.
In this article, foreign nationals wishing to visit the Korean DMZ will learn about:
- Reaching the DMZ as an international visitor
- Safety in the DMZ
- What to do and see in the DMZ.
Can tourists visit the DMZ in South Korea?
As you may already know, North Korea is the most politically isolated country in the world. For the vast majority of foreigners, chances that they will get to visit it are extremely slim.
Pyongyang allows only 4,000 Western visitors each year and American citizens are banned from entering altogether since September 1st, 2017. For most tourists, the easiest way to get access to the DMZ is through South Korea.
How far is the DMZ from Seoul?
Seoul is the most convenient place to stay near the DMZ not only because it’s the South Korean capital with plenty of attractions for tourists but also because it’s located only 50 km away from the DMZ.
Although there are buses and taxis available to reach the DMZ, remember that many of the most important landmarks in the DMZ are accessible only to visitors who arrive on an organized tour. There are plenty of tour options available for booking in Seoul that will include transportation. You can also decide to purchase a tour spot on arrival. Prices vary greatly depending on the tour operator.
Is Visiting the DMZ Safe?
The DMZ is a buffer zone surrounding the 250 km-long border between North and South Korea. It’s considered a zone of peace but seen the history between the two countries, it’s no surprise that it’s also a heavily militarized area where tension is high at all times.
Visitors should expect to see a great number of armed guards from North and South Korea and the US as well as barbed-wire fences, land mines, and tank traps. However, the danger is kept safely away from the tourist area visited by civilians.
To ensure that everything runs smoothly, there are a number of rules and regulations that all visitors must observe:
- You’ll need to keep your passport on you at all times.
- No photos are allowed outside of the designated areas. Zoom lenses are not permitted within the DMZ.
- Bags are not allowed into certain areas. Visitors are encouraged to pack light and not bring any valuables with them.
- Military-printed attire is not permitted. Sandals and ripped jeans must also be avoided.
- Waiving and pointing at soldiers of both sides is prohibited.
- You must remain with your guide or military escort at all times.
What Do You Do in the DMZ?
There are plenty of attractions and landmarks within the DMZ. As mentioned above, the vast majority of these must be seen as part of an organized tour and visitors are not allowed to explore them independently. However, there are some exceptions — like Unification Hill and the DMZ Museum.
See where Truce Talks Took Place: Panmunjon
Panmunjon is also called the Joint Security Area or ‘truce village’ and sits right on the Military Demarcation Line. This is where the 1953 Armistice Agreement was signed. It’s the most visited part of the DMZ and can be reached only during an organized tour.
Enjoy the View at Unification Hill
Unification Hill is an observatory that allows the sight to span deep into both North and South Korea (you will be able to spot Seoul’s tallest skyscrapers from here). It hosts an educational institution that can be visited by paying a small entrance fee. You can visit Unification Hill on your own and you can reach it from Seoul by Korean public transport.
Learn About the Korean War at the DMZ Musem
Visitors can reach and roam the museum freely without the need of a guide. Here they’ll be able to learn about the history of the Korean War and find copies of the signed Armistice Agreement as well as official missing people notices, memories written by South Korean generals, and letters by American soldiers.
A Planned Attack: the Infiltration Tunnels
Tourists will be surprised to be able to visit a series of infiltration tunnels built for the purpose of carrying out surprise attacks. The second tunnel is spacious enough to allow 30,000 soldiers and tanks to cross the border within an hour while the third tunnel can be uncomfortable to walk for particularly tall visitors.
A Symbol of Hope: Dorasan Station
Dorasan train station was built as an act of hope for reunification. This fully operational station is supposed to serve a train railway that connects the two capitals Seoul and Pyongyang but has not been used yet.
The Dorasan Unification Platform was built in 2015 and hosts a German unification exhibition in an old train carriage as well as a clock counting the hours since the two Koreas have officially been divided.
A History of Divisions: Imjingak
7 km from the DMZ, this is the closest civilians can get to the area without having to get a security clearance. It’s a park dedicated to the tragedy of the 10 million South Koreans who have been divided from their families. You will find a four-story museum, an observatory, and the famous Freedom Bridge that repatriated soldiers and prisoners of war used to return home.