Unsurprisingly the area dubbed as ‘the world’s most dangerous border’ is also the number 1 tourist attraction in South Korea; over 1.2 million visitors flock every year to the infamous Korean Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. If you too are looking for the best day trip to DMZ from Seoul, this guide will help you make the right choice!
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The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – what is it and a short history
To understand the DMZ, we should touch a bit upon Korea’s 20th-century history.
In 1910 Japan annexed Korea and ran it as part of the Japanese Empire. There are mixed feelings and differing interpretations of that specific period of Korean history to this day.
Although some contemporary Japanese officials tried to minimize their predecessor’s actions, their rule of Korea was undoubtedly brutal and aimed at the partial or total annihilation of the Korean identity; many palaces and symbols of Joseon Korea were willfully destroyed, and tens of thousands of Korean women were used as virtual sex slaves to mention just a couple of the highly questionable practices of Imperial Japan. Yet, on the other hand, the Japanese administration promoted economic and industrial modernization as Korea was a quasi-feudal, economically backward country at the beginning of the last century; some of the modern Korean conglomerates have roots in Japanese times.
After Japan lost World War II, the southern part of the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Americans while the northern side was under Soviet administration. The initial plan was to unify the two halves, but, same as in Germany, the reunification didn’t happen since the former allies, US and USSR, became enemies in the Cold War that ensued.
Long story short, the North Korean USSR-supported government decided to unify the peninsula by force and invaded the South in 1950. It prompted the UN to send a force eventually joined by 21 nations to support the South Korean government; they called it a ‘police action,’ but the euphemism couldn’t hide the reality of a full-blown war.
Initially, the North Korean forces overran almost the entire Korean peninsula, except a tiny south-eastern corner around Busan. The American landing at Incheon was a game-changer; now it was the UNs turn to push into North Korea. When it seemed that the American-led UN forces were on the verge of total victory, the Chinese intervened, sending millions of troops across the Yalu River. I’ll pause here for a moment for the implications to fully set in.
By the end of 1950, China and the US were at war in all but name. Then, in January 1951, the Southern capital of Seoul fell to the Chinese and North Koreans for the second time since the war started. Finally, the situation became so desperate for the US-led UN forces that General MacArthur considered using nuclear bombs on Chinese cities to the horror of the European participants to the UN war effort. China and the USSR being allies, a nuclear attack on China would have ignited World War III and the possible destruction of humanity in the flames of a nuclear Apocalypse.
While MacArthur considered total war, another American general, Matthew Ridgway, led the 8th Army on a counteroffensive, inflicting heavy losses on the Chinese and liberating Seoul in March 1951. Ridgway’s victory put the US in a strong position to negotiate peace, but MacArthur seemed hell-bent to destroy the human race just to soothe his bruised ego. The general used his image as a popular war hero to promote his vision of total war against the desires of the US civilian leadership. Eventually, President Harry S Truman had no choice but to relieve MacArthur from his command, replacing him with Ridgway. For his leadership at this pivotal moment, Truman should be hailed as one of the great leaders of the 20th century. Twenty-two years later, Time magazine quoted Truman as saying the following about the incident: “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
By 1953 the two sides fought each other to a stand-still, occupying more or less the same lands they did before the war; hundreds of thousands, if not millions, died for nothing. Finally, an Armistice was signed on 27th July 1953, requiring the opposing armies to retreat two kilometers each to avoid direct contact. Hence, the DMZ was born, a 4km wide and over 250km long no-mans-land separating the Northern and Southern armies.
Since its creation, the DMZ has successfully fulfilled its mission, keeping the opposing sides apart and maintaining an uneasy peace. Nevertheless, occasional skirmishes still happen, reminding the world of one of the last vestiges of the 20th century Cold War.
What is the the Joint Security Area (JSA)
The JSA is the only point of the DMZ where the two opposing militaries actually meet. It is also where politicians from the opposing sides can meet and discuss; Trump met Kim Jong-Un here a few years ago.
Given the sensitive nature of the JSA, there are strict security rules for visiting.
What you should know about visiting the JSA: rules and regulations
One needs to book the tour minimum of 72 hours in advance for security checks, and no children below the age of 12 are allowed – keep this in mind if you plan to go for the full day tour.
When visiting the JSA, another important thing to keep in mind is the dress code. Officially the visitors are expected to show their respect for such an important geopolitical sight, but the real reason is actually much quirkier: North Korean authorities used pics of casually dressed tourists to convince its citizens of how poor and decadent the Western and South Korean citizens are. So no ripped jeans, sleeveless shirts, or mini-skirts, please!
Also, avoid clothing with military-like prints, national flags, or other national symbols. For some reason, workout clothes are not allowed either: no sweat pants or leotards!
As for footwear, no sandals or similar open-top or open-back shoes; loafers, mocassins, and dressier sneakers are fine.
While you are in the JSA, there are restrictions on what you can photograph. For example, you are not allowed, under any circumstances, to take pics of the North Korean soldiers. However, you can take pics with the cool, sunglass-wearing South Korean guards if not otherwise advised.
By the way, did you know that the sunglasses are part of the South Korean guards’ uniform? It is supposed to shield the soldier’s emotions or, I would guess, the annoyance of being photographed by all the passing tourists.
Other things worth knowing for a day trip to DMZ
As already mentioned, the only way of getting to the DMZ is by organized tour.
Usually, the tour starts at 08:10 AM (Weekdays)/ 07:10 AM (Weekend-Sat.&Sun./National Holidays) and leaves from Hongik Univ. station exit 3.
On Mondays and Korean Public holidays, you won’t find tour options, as you can easily see from the below simulation.
What to bring with you
You must have your valid passport with you.
Also, wear comfortable shoes and clothes, that would allow you to walk through the narrow tunnel.
Other things you will see on the day trip to DMZ
Apart from the JSA, both the full-day and half-day tours cover important historical landmarks such as Imjingak Park or The Bridge of Freedom.
Since 1974 South Korea has discovered four underground tunnels dug under the DMZ; specialists believe there could be as many as twenty tunnels in total.
The so-called 3rd Infiltration Tunnel is usually part of the guided tours. Although North Korea denies this, the corridor seems designed to allow a surprise attack on Seoul. Given its dimensions, it has room for 30.000 North Korean soldiers armed with light weaponry to pass every hour. That is 720.000 soldiers in 24 hours; imagine the damage they could do by falling behind the South Korean defenses.
Many are curious to get a glimpse of the isolated hermit state of North Korea, but travel to the country is severely restricted. However, you could safely do this by visiting the Dorasan Observatory.
By using its high-power binoculars, you can observe parts of Kaesong, the ninth-largest city in North Korea. On a clear day, you could even glimpse the bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of North Korea and grandfather of its current Supreme Leader.
But DMZ is not only about military history and political propaganda. Since it is an almost 1000 square kilometers area with virtually no human population, nature reasserted itself over the decades.
There were sightings of the endangered Siberian Tiger, in addition to Amur Leopards and numerous bird species.
A DMZ day trip experience
Our friend Silvia has traveled from Hong Kong and went on a DMZ day trip from Seoul. Here is what she has to say about it and why you too should consider going on such a trip.
“We chose to go on a full-day tour from Seoul. Transportation was done by coach and the starting point was Hongik subway station.
The first stop on the tour was at the tunnels, where the guide gave us the history of north Koreans digging into the south to facilitate attacks. Then we went in and it all became very real very fast.
Afterward, we were guided to a shop that was selling North Korean export products such as local wine and cosmetics.
The next stop was the Dora observatory, from where we could see inside North Korea.
Next on the list was the highway crossing where the South built a factory inside the North in order to improve relationships. The plan was that South Korea would bring the machinery and expertise, while North Korea would bring the workforce. Everything was abandoned when North Korea decided to ban the project.
The last stop was Dora train station which is the last train station in South Korea. Located 56 kilometers away from Seoul Station, and 205 kilometers from Pyeongyang, the place wishes to play a decisive role in linking South and North Korea.
It is an aspiration for the reunification of the Korean peninsula and the first station towards the North.
What I loved most was the possibility to learn a bit more about the tumultuous history of the Korean wars, as well as actually be able to see inside North Korea.
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