This is the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. It acts as a border between North and South Korea. As dangerous as it looks now, this place is visited by over a million tourists every year. If you want to visit solo, the DMZ museum and Unification Tower are open to independent travelers from the South. But think about this. You’re walking into a war zone. The soldiers may be on truce, but the land mines are still there. How can you know where to walk? That’s the thing, you can’t. That’s why you’ll need a guide to show you the way. This is not a place where you want to wander off. So it’s best to buddy-up. Stay with your guides and military escorts at all times. You will likely have to sign a form that secures the authorities against any liability if you get separated and hurt yourself. Having second thoughts? No? Good. Welcome to the world of extreme tourism. We’ll take care of the travel arrangments. Let’s start the tour shall we? The DMZ was established in 1953 after both countries signed an armistice agreement to end three years of brutal fighting. The DMZ runs across the Korean peninsula. It’s about 249 km (155 mi) long and 3.2 km (2 mi) wide. You’ll see barbed wire fences on both sides and hundreds of thousands of troops with heavy artillery. This land is also off-limits to industrial developments, allowing wildlife and plant life to bloom. But you’re not an endangered species, and if you take the wrong path, you could be put down.
Arrive from the south
The DMZ is about 48.3 km (30 mi) north of Seoul. The most visited part of the DMZ is the Joint Security Area or JSA. This is where tourists can officially enter North Korea and see their soldiers standing at attention. If you’re American, you’ll need to get there via South Korea, using an official tour operator. That part is super important. Americans have been banned from entering North Korea since 2017. Citizens from other countries can apply for a Visa and access the DMZ from North Korea. But it’s usually easier from the South. Make sure book your appointment about a week before going, and do not forget your passport.
Beware of defectors
Make sure you’re paying attention to your surroundings. Things can get intense real fast. if tensions arise at the border, your tour could be canceled at any moment. In 2017, a North Korean soldier defected at the DMZ. He drove a military truck toward the South and crashed into a tree. North Korean soldiers began firing at him while he ran out of the truck. They fired over 40 rounds at the soldier. He managed to dodge most of them but was still badly hurt. The soldier fell unconscious on the grass. When it looked like he had run out of luck, South Korean soldiers dragged him to safety. The soldiers then took him to a hospital, where he recovered after treatment. Enjoying your tour so far? Let’s keep moving.
Step into North Korea
Crossing the border in the JSA is perfectly legal and part of the experience., so don’t worry. These blue buildings are UN Command neutral zones, inside which the North and South borders are located. Here, you can move freely. One of the buildings, the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission, or UNCMAC, is used for the North and South to have meetings. You can even pose for a photo with a South Korean soldier inside this neutral building. Do you see that door behind you? Don’t even think about it. If you cross, you’ll be alone and in North Korea. And no one is responsible for your safety there.
Enjoy the view
The visit to the DMZ also comes with some stunning views. Check out the Dora Observatory and the Imjingak Nuri Peace Park. This park reflects the two nations’ painful history and shows a desire for national reunification. Here you can also see the Freedom Bridge, which prisoners used to return to their country at the end of the war. If you want a breathtaking scene, go to Mount Odu Observatory. It provides a 360-degree view across the Korean peninsula. Up here, you can see the contrast between the modern cities of South Korea and the marshes of the North. You can even see some civilians in North Korea walking around. It will feel like being there without actually setting foot inside.
Don’t go into the tunnels
The tour usually includes a stop at the unfinished infiltration tunnels reportedly built by the North. These tunnels were discovered in 1984. The longest of these tunnels is about 1,080 m (5,500 ft) in length. One of the tunnels is only 44 km (144,000 ft) away from Seoul and it’s estimated that it could move about 30,000 troops per hour. Don’t venture into these tunnels alone, some of them are still unknown to the South. You could get lost and never be found.
Mind your manners
Ensure that you are respectful at the DMZ. Don’t make gestures that could provoke North Korean soldiers. You cannot wave, signal, point, or take pictures without permission. You will also have to follow a strict dress code especially if you’re coming from the south side. Avoid wearing sandals, camouflage, or ripped jeans. South Korean officers will be very strict with these policies since photos taken of a poorly dressed person could be used to produce propaganda. Nothing like a picture of you in cargo shorts and crocs being used as North Korean propaganda. Remember that soldier who escaped North Korea? He made it out alive… barely. Others are not so lucky and end up dead or in concentration camps. And some of them even risk escaping these prisons for a little taste of freedom.
- A Rare Look Inside the Korean DMZ, the ‘Scariest Place on Earth’. Hardy, M. (2018). Wired.
- North Korea man wandered for hours in DMZ amid South’s security blunders. (2021). BBC News
- How to visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Springer, K. (2019). CNN Travel.
- ‘The scariest place on Earth’: What it’s like on the Korean DMZ, the world’s most dangerous strip of land. Maresca, T. (2017). USA Today.
- How To Visit North Korea’s Dmz Border (Updated 2023). Avery, J. (2023). Thrifty Nomads.