A Tour of the DMZ in South Korea

“What do I care about proving anything
Only bust chains & shackles that we may slip anchor
Haul-ass away to the making of Paradise”
– Philip Whalen, from Scenes of Life at the Capital

I had wanted to visit the border of North and South Korea on my first trip through Seoul, but I never got the opportunity — there was so much in the city to see and do that I never booked a tour. There were also regular cancellations of tours of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) due to tensions between the countries.

south korean guards
Guards in South Korea are adorable, just like in the cartoons

I got the opportunity to visit the Korean DMZ with my parents during their trip to visit me in Taipei. Unfortunately, I did not browse the tour options closely enough — I didn’t know the names of some sites around the DMZ and ended up missing out on the part that I was most interested in seeing.

dmz park
First sight in Paju was this theme park.

The first stop on the tour of the DMZ was Imjingak (임진각) in Paju. While it seems like a sad sort of theme park, it is home to the Freedom Bridge, which was used for the repatriation of soldiers’ remains and POWs.

dmz bridge
The bridge to nowhere at Imjingak

The tour included a visit to Gyeongui, the reunification train station — the first stop on a train line that would welcome an influx of North Koreans. I got to purchase a ticket bound for Pyeongyang. I stood on the platform, but the train never arrived (probably for the best).

reunification platform korea
Standing on the Reunification Platform. How long was I supposed to wait for the train?

We were then taken to the third infiltration tunnel, which was discovered in 1978. This included a movie about North Korea’s attempts to dig tunnels beneath the DMZ into South Korea. The short movie is low budget and has some cheesy special effects, but it is informative. The military maintains that there may be additional tunnels that haven’t yet been discovered.

dmz train
The last train through the border

The third infiltration tunnel is the best maintained and deepest tunnel discovered by the South Korean military. The North Korean end is sealed off, but visitors get to experience the depth of the original tunnel at 240 ft below ground — some people on the tour had a difficult time walking back up. It also gets a little cramped in places for those of us who are taller than average (or really just anyone taller than my mom). The tunnel was big enough for the DPRK military to move large quantities of weapons into South Korea.

barbed wire
Souvenir barbed wire, anyone?

Dora Observatory, where we could pay for the binoculars to look into North Korea through the hazy air. There wasn’t much to see other than dirt and a few trees. It might be more interesting on a clear day though.

north korea
Somewhere through that haze is North Korea. Photos are not allowed from any closer to the viewing platform

The tour did not, however, include a stop at the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom, which was the one stop I had wanted to see. Panmunjom is the area directly on the border between North and South Korea and surrounded by mine fields.

weird south korea food
I’m supposed to do what now?

Panmunjom had been the part of the tour that I actually wanted to see as it is a place of history, where meetings between the two Koreas have taken place. It was also featured on Conan Without Borders (the scene at the border area was entertaining). Even Donny met Kim Jong-un there.

I was stuck with the tour I had chosen, which included mostly stops in parking lots and theme-park-esque areas around the border. But there were also souvenir shops that sold some kitschy gifts for tourists. I mean, who wouldn’t want to bring home some DMZ rice or chocolate barbed wire?

dmz rice
That’s a lot of rice to carry on a tour.

Maybe in a few years they’ll open a roller coaster with views of North Korea.

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