South Korea

Visiting the DMZ and JSA

IMG_1567When visiting Seoul last October, the top place on my list to visit was the Joint Security Area (JSA) at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The Panmunjom area of the JSA is where South Korean and North Korean military forces basically stand face-to-face. This is a surreal experience and one I am glad I was able to see.

The only way to visit the JSA is through an authorized tour company. I ended up going with Koridoor Tours since it was recommended by the USO. Koridoor is also only one of a few companies that offers tours to the JSA. Koridoor offered a few DMZ tour options but I went with the only option to the visit JSA (Full-day DMZ/JSA tour).

On the day of the tour all participants were required to arrive to the Koridoor tour office early for identification verification. You have to show your passport (or military ID) for entry into the JSA. Once everyone was verified we all filled up the bus to head to the DMZ.

My tour started with a visit to the JSA. When we arrived to Camp Bonifas are passports were verified by a military escort. The tour was then directed to the JSA Visitor Center for a 20-minute briefing by another military escort. The briefing explained the history between the North and South, plus expected behavior of visitors with a lot of focus on not defecting to North Korea.

Once the briefing was over the tour moved to a military bus for the JSA visit. One thing to be aware of, you are required to leave all purses and bags on the Koridoor bus for the JSA portion of the tour. The bus ride around the JSA was relatively short (about 30 minutes). Even shorter was the time at the Panmunjom (literally around 10 to 15 minutes).

At the Panmunjom you actually are able to enter the famous blue buildings where discussions are held between South Korea and North Korea. Inside the building you are able to cross the Military Demarcation Line where you can stand in North Korea (for about 5 minutes).

The feeling at the Panmunjom is very tense. South Korean soldiers are standing guard watching the North Korean soldiers (and vice-versa). Interestingly there were very few North Koreans soldiers standing guard the day I visited. This was commented on by others on the tour who had previously been to the JSA.

After the JSA tour we were taken back to Camp Bonifas for a short break before heading out on the rest of the tour with Koridoor. Of course there is a gift shop where I bought a JSA t-shirt and North Korean currency. Funny enough, every stop of the tour had a gift shop.

Berlin Wall

Section of the Berlin Wall at the DMZ

From the JSA we then visited the Dorasan Station. Dorasan Station is the most northern train station in South Korea and is less than 1000m from the boundary of the DMZ. The station was opened in hopes of a reconciliation between both North and South Korea. There is hope the station will one day connect both countries, and connect South Korea to railways in Russia (and beyond!).

One compliant I have with this part of the tour is we had to pay an additional 1,000KRW in cash to go out on the platform. As much as that irritated me, it was fascinating to go out onto the platform because you could hear the propaganda music being played from North Korea towards the South. This was crazy to hear!

Next, we moved on to a Korean Restaurant at the DMZ for lunch. Lunch is not included in the tour and for good reason. The food at the restaurant is absolutely disgusting. The lunch I purchased at the DMZ was the worst meal I had in South Korea and literally resembled cafeteria food. Many people recommend online to bring your own food, and I wish I had listened to this suggestion.

After lunch we headed to Dora Observatory. The Dora Observatory is on the South Korean side of the DMZ. If you visit on a clear day you’ll have great views of the DMZ, South Korea, and even parts of North Korea. One thing you can kind of see from the observatory is a North Korean propaganda village, where no one actually lives. It was a little overcast on the day I visited, so you couldn’t make out much of North Korea.

The last place we visited was the DMZ Theater and the Third Infiltration Tunnel. The tunnel was discovered in 1978 and was created by North Korea to surprise attack Seoul. The tunnel was considered an act of aggression from North Korea by the UN and has since been sealed off. Interestingly this is one of four tunnels discovered so far along the DMZ. It is estimated there are up to 20 more hidden tunnels along the border.

To be completely honest, I could have easily skipped this part of the tour. The DMZ Theater played the most American and South Korean propaganda video I have ever seen and heard. It actually was a tad uncomfortable watching this video (and I was not the only person who felt this way). I also ended up skipping the Third Infiltration Tunnel because it is supposed to be very claustrophobic with a steep incline. A few soldiers who were on the tour complained about the tunnel afterwards being a PTSD trigger and being difficult to walk.

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Overall the Koridoor tour to the JSA and DMZ was a great experience. There were a few downsides to the tour, but the experience at the JSA is something I will always remember. Visiting the JSA and DMZ was a fascinating experience! I’m so glad I was able to visit here, especially with the current political climate.

Things to Note for visiting the JSA

  1. You need either a Military ID or Passport to go on the tour. Some Passports may be restricted from visiting the JSA.
  2. There is a dress code to the JSA (though it was not fully enforced on my tour).
  3. Currently tours are being restrictedand not visiting the Bridge of No Return and Point of Ax Murder. My tour last October missed these locations.
  4. This is a tour that can’t be booked at the last minute since all visitor information is submitted to the JSA in advance.
  5. Tours can be cancelled without much notice if there is an official meeting or ceremony being held at the JSA. Also, this means there is no refund for missing the JSA.