Visiting the DMZ on a day trip from Seoul

Visiting the DMZ on a Day Trip From Seoul

A Day Trip to the Korean Border

Visiting the DMZ between North and South Korea is a popular day trip from Seoul. Following the recent and unexpected thaw in relations between North and South Korea, we look back at our trip to the Korean border in 2012,  and the surreal normality of visiting the DMZ. 

Why Was the DMZ Created?

The Demilitarized Zone that pads out the border between North and South Korea is one the last remnants of the Cold War. When hostilities ended between North and South Korea in 1953, the armistice that both sides committed to did not fully end the Korean War

Instead it declared a truce, one that is still in place today. That truce has never been replaced with an official end to the conflict, and technically both sides remain at war.

That armistice also divided the Korean peninsula into two sovereign nations for the first time in its history. 

The 160 mile long border between North and South Korea would become the focal point for the animosity and mistrust that would remain between the new nations for the next six decades. 

demilitarised zone was marked out to run the length of the border, two and a half miles wide. This would supposedly act as a space free of military weapons or conflict, and help to keep the peace. Ultimately the DMZ became one of the most heavily armed places on earth.

Inside the DMZ

Within the DMZ sits Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA), where both Koreas have a base. The Korean border splits the JSA right down the middle. 

Since 1953 the two sides have stared each other out across the JSA, and during that time several incidents and flash points have threatened a return to full scale conflict. 

Both sides have their own official buildings in the JSA; on the north side is Panmon Hall, which had an extra floor added to it to ensure that it was taller than Freedom House, its equivalent on the south of the border.

It’s the many small and absurd details such as this that underlines the surrealism of visiting what is supposed to be one of the most dangerous places in the world. As is the fact that visiting the DMZ as a tourist is possible at all. 

It’s hard to imagine visitors flocking to see any of the world’s other insanely militarised border zones just to gawp at the other side, but if you visit either North or South Korea it’s a fairly simple day trip. Estimates suggest that around 100,000 tourists visit the DMZ each year.

Day-Tripping to the Korean Border

Our visit started in Seoul, at the USO’s US army base, at the crack of dawn. It’s a popular trip – three coachloads of us are taken north for the hour long drive to the JSA.

On arrival we’re handed a badly photocopied waiver full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes to sign. By signing it we agree that if it all kicks off whilst we’re visiting the DMZ we can’t hold the United Nations Command responsible for our unforeseen deaths.

We’re then brought into a small lecture theatre and given a presentation on the history of the DMZ, and specifically the Joint Security Area. This is when the true magnitude of where we are kicks in. The JSA has been the setting for a number of truly awful incidents since its creation in 1953.

Learning about the Axe Murder Incident whilst visiting the DMZ
Army officers give a presentation about the Axe Murder Incident whilst visiting the DMZ in Korea.

We are told in detail about the Axe Murder Incident in 1976, where the simple job of pruning a tree that blocked the view from a checkpoint led to the vicious attack and death of two US army soldiers at the hands of the North Koreans. 

We also learn of the deadly firefight that ensued after a Soviet citizen ran across the north side of the border in order to defect to the west in 1984. It’s difficult to imagine that this all took place just outside from the room we’re in, less than 20 metres away.

This also adds to the absurdity of a visit to the DMZ. Bussed in like pensioners on a day trip to the seaside, and with our error-strewn (and surely worthless) waivers, it all seems like being on a film set, or at a theme park early in the morning before the crowds arrive.

Inside Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area

Despite the horror stories from the history lesson in the lecture theatre, our American soldier guides are calm, relaxed and friendly, happy to chat and answer questions. 

Being on the massively militarised border with the unknown threat of North Korea feels quite nice, which it probably shouldn’t.

We’re taken through Freedom House and stand facing North Korea and the row of conference rooms that straddle the border. Operated by the UN, these buildings are the setting whenever diplomatic relations are good enough for meetings to be held between North and South Korea. 

Our US army guide tells us that unfortunately we’re unable to enter any of these buildings on our visit as they’re being redecorated, denying us the chance to officially step in to North Korea. We look up to see a man on one of a roof with a paint roller in his hand.

The Bridge of No Return at the border between North and South Korea seen whilst visiting the DMZ
The Bridge of No Return at the border between North and South Korea

Instead we listen on the steps of Freedom House as we receive more details about the JSA. It’s difficult to match the scene with its history – with its perfectly manicured lawns and neatly trimmed hedges, the beautiful blue sky and sunshine and the chap painting the roof means the JSA resembles a modern business park rather than one of the most deadly corners on earth. 

The only difference being the South Korean soldiers dotted around, as still as mannequins in their Taekwondo poses.

Across the border a single North Korean soldier stands in front of Panmon Hall. The US army guide tells us not to wave at North Korea , “they won’t wave back” he adds.

The Bridge of No Return and Propaganda Village

In keeping with the schizophrenic nature of the day, we exit Freedom House through the gift shop, where all kinds of DMZ themed tat is on sale. 

From here we re-board our buses and are driven up to the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war where exchanged by both sides in the early years after the Korean War, and where the horrendous Axe Murder Incident took place in 1976. 

Then we continue on to a vantage point and allowed off the bus to stare at Kijŏng-dong, the village in North Korea most visible from the south of the border. 

A view of the North Korean town of Kijŏng-dong from the DMZ
The North Korean town of Kijŏng-dong, also known as Propaganda Village, and its flagpole. Our US army guide said that the weight of the flag meant that the wind was rarely strong enough to display it properly.

Sat beneath the fourth tallest flagpole in the world, the US army guys tell us that the village of Kijŏng-dong is largely for show. Most of the buildings in the town are empty – some are just shells without any interior at all. 

Some are lit by a single bulb that turns off and on at exactly the same time every day. The outlying fields are ploughed by animals rather than by tractors. It all starts to feel a little dispiriting.

Peering into North Korea From the Dora Observatory

Later we’re taken to the Dora Observatory, which is filled with tourists from many other DMZ day trips (only the USO tour goes into the JSA, but others visit various sites around the DMZ). Dora Observatory looks straight in to North Korea. 

Inside there’s a huge auditorium that looks onto the beautiful green fields of the DMZ at nothing in particular. The industry around watching North Korea begins to feel incredibly sad. 

The focus of the tour has been all about the history of the division of Korea, the military effort to keep the peace and the hope one day for reunification. There’s very little mention of the Korean families that have been ripped apart by the creation of the border. 

Tourists photograph North Korea from the Dora Observatory whilst visiting the DMZ
Tourists photograph North Korea from the Dora Observatory whilst visiting the DMZ.

There’s no consideration for the lives of the people who live just a few miles away on the other side of the border. There is no mention of how different and difficult their lives must be, almost no empathy at what they must have to endure on a daily basis. 

But each day they’re being stared at from a purpose built observatory by busloads of tourists from all over the world.

The Future of the DMZ

The historic moment when Kim Jong Un crossed the Korean demarcation line into South Korea as part of the first Inter Korean Summit in April 2018 suggested that there could be progress in relations between the two countries. 

Understandably, many remain sceptical; there have been summits and peace proposals between North and South Korea in the past, and it would certainly take years of negotiations and actions on both sides before a real and lasting peace bore fruit. 

Perhaps if it does the JSA could remain a tourist attraction, much like the remnants of the Berlin Wall. Maybe one day people will walk through the DMZ and try to fathom what kept a divided nation apart for so long.

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