Top of my list of things to do in Seoul (apart from eat), was visit the DMZ, the Demilitarised Zone, which is the border between North and South Korea. I had no idea until I got to South Korea that this was a tourist attraction and I have to admit that at first I was a little baffled that they were using this to make profit. Having visited it now though I can see that it is a really unique experience that allows you to get up and close with some very current affairs and have a real look at the border between these two parts of the country with little risk.
Booking a Tour
The only way to visit the DMZ is with a guided tour. There are literally hundreds of different tours out there so it took me quite a while to figure out the package for a last minute visit. I’ll be writing up a post with some tips on how to plan your visit to the DMZ as if it’s something you’re intent on doing, you’d be wise to plan and book at least a week in advance.
After poking around some travel blogs, I decided to book a half day tour with SeoulCityTour.net. I opted for this company because it seemed like a reasonable price and they were available last minute. I found a lot of companies required you to send them your passport details at least three to four days in advance and it was already too late for me to do this. The tour costs 46,000 Won per person but there is a discount if you book a group of more than three people.
I sent SeoulCityTour.net an email on a Friday night and received a response very quickly on the same evening. Luckily there were spaces for a tour on Sunday morning and it was all arranged and paid for very quickly. I sent the tour my passport number and the names of my two friends, paid online, and that was it! I was surprised at how easy it was to book after a lot of reviews I’d read online telling me to book in advance.
On the day of the tour, we were picked up from our hotel at 7:30am. A couple of people had already been collected but there were a few more to go so we had to drive around to some other hotels to pick more people up. Once everyone was in the car, we were taken to a meeting spot where there was a bigger coach waiting with lots of other people on it. This is where we met our tour guide for the DMZ.
Our tour guide was a Korean man who goes by Hans, and I honestly don’t think we could’ve had a better tour guide. He only gives tours once a month as he is still a serving member of the South Korean military. Previously, he had served as a UN Peace Keeping Troop for 10 years meaning he’d been to every world battleground during his time as a soldier including: Afghanistan, the Sudan and Iraq. It was great to be shown around by someone who has first hand experience with both the South and North Korean military, though of course he couldn’t give us any real details on what the situation currently is behind closed doors. You might think that Hans would be a very serious man, but he was good humoured and cracked a lot of jokes, whilst also giving us in depth knowledge about the DMZ.
The journey from the centre of Seoul to the DMZ took around 40 minutes by coach. The half day tour includes the following sites at the DMZ: Imjingak Park, Freedom Bridge, The 3rd infiltration Tunnel, DMZ Theatre / Exhibition Hall, Dora observatory, Dorasan Station and a Ginseng Centre.
First we were taken to Freedom Bridge – the bridge across which some 12000 soldiers came back through after the Korean war. It is the only path that connects North and South Korea around the Imjin river. There was also an old locomotive from the war on display with lots of (very large) bullet holes in it.
Then we were shown an introductory video, which explained the background of Korea and how North and South Korea became divided in the first place. I have to say that this bit was a little strange. At first, the video was, as you’d expect, very serious and informative. I know very little about the history of Korea and this short video went a long way. However, the second half of the video was suddenly super happy and jolly, explaining how wildlife thrived in the DMZ, in a way that my friends and I just found thoroughly bizarre…
After this, we got to go deep into the tunnels that the South Koreans discovered the North Koreans had been digging. We went into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which was found in 1978 after the South Koreans detected an underground explosion. By the time you reach the end of the tunnel, you are only 170m away from North Korea! This is a very cool experience but the walk down (and up) is very steep, so this isn’t one for people with respiratory problems or claustrophobia. In at least half of the tunnel, I had to stoop over and the tunnel was very damp.
Next up was my most anticipated part of the tour: Dora Observatory. From here you can see North Korea with your own eyes! It’s important to bear in mind that the observatory is not always open. It is within shooting range of North Korea and so if relations are bad, the observatory is often closed for safety reasons. Hans repeatedly told us that as relations were currently bad he would have to check upon our arrival as to whether it was open.
Thankfully it was on the day we visited and despite the fact it was very foggy I could just about make out the city of Kaesong in the distance. This is North Korea’s second largest city and yet it is still home to only around 190,000 inhabitants. In the distance you can see two flagpoles, one on either side of the dividing river, one flying the South Korean flag, the other flying the North Korean flag. For an even better look at the North Korean cities in the distance, you can pay 500 won to unlock the telescopes they have lining the observatory.
After this we visited Dorosan Station, the train station which once connected North and South Korea. Interestingly, in 2000, former President of South Korea Kim Dae-jung visited to North Korea to meet Kim Jung-il and they agreed to reconnect Gyeongui Line. However, on the 1st December 2008, the North Korean government closed the border crossing. There wasn’t a huge amount to see in here but it was interesting to stand in what obviously has a lot of symbolic significance. Most of the tourists, however, seemed more interested in the gift shop.
After this we left the DMZ area and headed for the last leg of the tour, which is not related to the DMZ at all really. It was a tour of a Ginseng Centre which was around half an hour away by coach. I think this part of the tour is probably just a tourist trap as after the history of Ginseng and its properties were explained to us, we were allowed to try some and then encouraged to buy some. I’m assuming that the tour company makes commission on every sale they make from their tour but really I thought this was just a waste of time. This last bit is the only thing I have to fault with this tour, which is a shame. The tour ended at around 2:30pm, when we were dropped off at Seoul City Hall.
Lunch was not included in the tour I selected but you could choose to have it tacked on the end for an additional 9000 won. The lunch is when you get back to Seoul City Hall at around 2:30pm so in my opinion it’s not worth it and you’d be better off just finding your own restaurant. The only advantage would be if you’re travelling solo and looking for company amongst your tour mates.
That pretty much sums up my experience at the DMZ, which was undoubtedly the most interesting thing I did in South Korea. If you’re planning on visiting Seoul, I’d definitely put this at the top of your priority list and make sure you plan ahead.
Would you like to visit the DMZ? Or perhaps even North Korea? Let me know in the comments below!
Find out more at SeoulCityTour.net
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