The notorious border between North and South Korea, known as the DMZ, is the most heavily militarized border in the whole world. Just 35 miles away from Seoul it is also one of Korea’s biggest tourist attractions. I have often wondered whether the South’s naughty neighbours attracts as many visitors as it repels.
Not long after I arrived in Korea, I wrote a bucket list for myself of things I wanted to do over the year. Of course, the DMZ was on it- how could I not go? It was the only Korean tourist attraction I even knew about before properly researching the country. Yet, by the time the end of my contract was approaching, I still hadn’t managed to go.
After my first year in Korea, I spent 2 months traveling and 1 month at home. One of the first things people would ask when they discovered I’d been living in Korea was if I had visited the border. I always felt a bit embarrassed to say no. I guess it’s a bit like living in France for a year, and not going to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower.
So, why did I not go? Well, for starters, I live in one of the most Southern regions of Korea, so it wasn’t exactly accessible. Going to Seoul for the weekend was a rare treat and whenever I went I just didn’t feel like spending the time or money to go and look at a border. It was never a conscious decision not to go. Just something I always put off, stating that I would “go next time.”
When I returned back to Korea to start my new job, my boyfriend and I decided to go to Seoul for a long weekend over the “Hangeul Day” Holiday. Since we had 3 days rather than 2, we decided to use our extra time to finally (for me, not the Wee Gypsy Boyfriend, who had already been) go and take a peek at the elusive North Korea.
Before I left I did have apprehensions about going. I must point out that none of these regarded my personal safety- not because I think I’m a total badass who could take Kim Jong Un down with just my bare fists. No, that is not the case! As odd as it sounds, visiting the DMZ is a pretty run of the mill thing for foreign expats to do during their time in Korea. Instead, these were the questions that I asked myself.
Is the DMZ going to be Expensive?
There are a few different way to see The DMZ. The tour which is supposed to be the most informative and that allows you to actually technically set foot into North Korea is the USO tour. A lot of people say that this is the only tour you should do as it’s the most informative and is the only tour that allows access to the Joint Security Area. But, the cost of this tour is around 90,000 won for the day. For me, although it would be cool to tell my grandchildren I technically stood in North Korea, I really didn’t want to fork out that much for the privelege.
Instead, I took the DMZ train from Seoul Station which was 17,800 for the return journey to Dorasan Station, the most northern train station in South Korea. From Dorasan Station we got picked up by a coach which dropped us off at the observation point where you can see into North Korea. They then took us to a park area where you can enter the underground tunnels between North and South Korea and stand just a few hundred metres away from North Korea. Before taking us back to the train station, we were taken to the peace park. This option was considerably cheaper than the USO tour and covered most of the key points- the main exception being actually stepping foot in North Korea.
I would say that it doesn’t need to be expensive, so long as you’re not bothered about actually standing in North Korea. One thing worth bearing in mind is that you are just standing in a room full of South Korean and American soldiers, that happens to be just on the North Korean side of the border. As cool as it may be for bragging rights, you’re not actually experiencing any of the culture or the atmosphere of the country.
Is a trip to the DMZ going to take a Lot of Time?
One of the main problems that I had with taking one of the big tours like the USO was the length of the tour. These tours are extremely thorough and will take you through every nook and cranny of the border. And this, of course, takes a lot of time- tours like this typically begin at 8.30am and finish at 5 pm. For a weekend visit to Seoul, that is one full day dedicated to seeing a border. I think if you are really interested in Korea’s political affairs or have always been obsessed with the North then it’s time well spent, but for me, it would have been a waste.
Another advantage of the DMZ train is that it is quite a brief tour. The train departs Seoul station at 8.30am and arrives back at 1.15pm, giving you the whole afternoon to explore the city.
Much like the money issue, the tour can be as time-consuming as you want it to be. If you want to see every single tunnel and stand “in North Korea” then you’ll probably need to do a full day tour, but you probably won’t grudge spending that amount of time there anyway. If you’re like me and just want to have a look into North Korea and would be happy only seeing one tunnel, then a half day tour would be perfect.
Is the DMZ going to be Educational?
This is where the USO tour is the clear winner. For starters, most of the more expensive tours are guided- meaning you have someone to give you a bit more insight into the Korean War and the situation between North and South. There is also a US soldier to take you around the Joint Security Area (the part where you step into North Korea.) If you go on the DMZ Train tour, you will have a coach driver to take you between places but you won’t have an actual tour guide so there isn’t much opportunity to learn. That being said, I think watching a few documentaries before you go is a beneficial way to learn more about it. I have heard, and can easily believe, that the information on the guided tours is very biased to the South. I would say that a DMZ tour isn’t the most effective way to actually learn about the division between North and South. Instead, it’s an opportunity to actually experience the border itself and bring the things that you already know to life.
Is the DMZ going to be really commercialised?
No matter what tour you decide to take unfortunately, it is going to be a bit like a militarised Disney Land. You can pose for photos beside DMZ statues, buy North Korean soju (that was actually brewed in South Korea) and pay a South Korean soldier to take their picture with you. You’ll see hordes of tours buses full of tourists equipped with extra-long lenses for their cameras, ready to take the best pictures of the North. It’s all a bit of a spectacle really and a bit bizarre when you remember that you are at one of the most heavily militarised borders in the world!
Is the DMZ good tourism?
I did worry about this before I visited the DMZ. Is this something I should be supporting? Is it right that a border that devastated so many families attracts so many visitors every day? Is it insensitive to pay 500 won to look through binoculars into one of the poorest countries in the world? To be honest, I’m still a bit undecided how I feel about it.
While the concept of making a border between two countries into a money making tourist attraction is a bit strange, it is actually good that these tours remind people that North Korea still exists. If you have lived in Korea or even visited, you’ll know yourself that you often forget about it until you read something about missile testing in the news, or go on a DMZ tour! Just down the road from the border, in Seoul, you can stroll about the shops in Myeongdong completely oblivious to the fact that North Korea is just a matter of miles away.
So while I don’t think the concept in itself is necessarily good tourism, I do think it does some good in reminding us what is just up the road. I think anything that gives people a bit of incentive to brush up on the history and politics of the country they are living in is, of course, in some way positive.
How much enjoyment am I really going to get out of the DMZ?
This was one of the questions that I repeatedly asked myself- was visiting a border really going to be enjoyable? Would I not get more enjoyment by spending the day visiting N. Seoul Tower or strolling around the traditional shops in Insadong? I was surprised by how much I actually enjoyed the day. It was interesting to actually look into North Korea and see the fake propaganda village. Even just seeing a North Korean flag flying was so surreal and it did encourage me to go home and learn about more about the situation. The area is also one of the most diverse parts of South Korea for seeing wildlife as it’s one of the only parts that hasn’t been heavily built upon. You can even see Korea’s national animal, the Siberian tiger here, but I wouldn’t count on seeing it on your DMZ tour!
I hope this can help you decide whether or not you think you should go on a DMZ tour. I personally am glad that I went and was pleased with the price and trip length of the train option. I don’t think I could have justified the USO tour because I’m not a huge history or politics buff. But, if that’s your kind of thing, then I’m sure that a guided tour would be money well spent. The decision comes down to your own preferences.
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Have you visited the DMZ? What did you think of it? If not, would you ever visit if you had the chance? Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think! x