There are a few things I would consider “must do” activities if visiting or living in South Korea as an American. One of them is definitely visiting the Demilitarized Zone. It is certainly not the most beautiful thing to see in Korea, but it does show why we (as in the Americans) came to Korea over 60 years ago, and why our armed forces are still here, and we consider South Korea to be of top strategic value to the US national interests in Asia.
The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ for short, stretches across all of the Korean Peninsula, bisecting it roughly (though not exactly) along the 38th Parallel where the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953. The DMZ is two miles wide and is considered the most land-mined part of the entire world, and both sides are strung with barbed wire and frequently guarded to prevent people from entering the DMZ.
While there are different parts of the DMZ that can be visited, the easiest and most frequently visited entry point is in the west around Panmunjom, where the armistice was signed. It’s a roughly 90 minute bus ride from Seoul to the DMZ, and many different tours run periodically throughout the week. Visiting the DMZ is not something you can do independently, but must do as part of a tour group. Many different tour companies offer up tours, some more closely affiliated with the US military and some run by South Korean civilian tour agencies. Most of the reputable tour companies’ itineraries are the same, so you really won’t get more from any one tour company. I chose to go with the USO, which operates tours for both military and civilian personnel ($40 for military/ $80 for civilians).
The first stop of the tour is at Camp Bonifas, where we received an introductory speech from our “tour guides” who are active duty military from the Joint Security Area. Then we were taken up to Panmunjom itself where we can visit the building where the armistice was signed, and even briefly step inside North Korean territory.
When we were in the building, we could also see a couple North Korean troops come forward by the building, taking picture of all of us. So of course we turned around and started taking pictures of them, so it was all sort of meta.
After visiting Panmunjom, we got a driving tour of part of the immediate area in the DMZ. We stopped at various places, such as an overlook where we could see into North Korea and see the huge giant flag that stands over Propaganda Village. Plus we also drove by the Bridge of No Return, where POWs were exchanged at the end of the Korean War.
It is interesting to realize that even though the DMZ is heavily mined and guarded, it has become a sort of nature preserve. Because no humans have really stepped foot in the DMZ in over 60 years (with some minor exceptions), it has allowed nature, and particularly bird life, to thrive on its own. The DMZ is currently home to a wide variety of rare birds, and one day, if and when the DMZ goes away, at least parts of it might be kept as a nature preserve.
Once the DMZ part of the tour was over, we still had two more sites to visit. The first stop was at the Dorasan train station, which is the northernmost train stop in South Korea, and the rail line connects with North Korea.
There are actual trains that leave from Seoul and head to Dorasan and return a couple times a day.
You can buy a ticket for 500 won and go out onto the train platform. It’s a completely typical train station, though it was sort of funny to see the signs pointing toward Pyongyang.
If and when the Koreas reunify, this rail line will be one of the first links between the two Koreas restored.
The final stop of the tour is at the Third Tunnel. The tunnel is one of a few tunnels discovered where North Korea dug underground and opened up tunnels into South Korea as part of a secret invasion route. This tunnel is probably the best preserved for visitors. We walked down a tunnel into the actual North Korean tunnel and we could walk part of the way through the tunnel before having to turn back, because it was blocked. It was interesting to see all the different ways the ongoing conflict between North and South Korea has manifested over the years.
The tour is a very full day that provides interesting historical and geopolitical information, and allows visitors a glimpse into a very real area of strategic interest. It is a very worthwhile place to visit.