I mean kind of… Technically about as far into North Korea you can get while still under the protective presence of the US and ROK military. I’m not one of those “extreme” travelers!
When I first moved to Korea, tensions with the North seemed to be escalating. There was a lot of missile tests and tweeting going on between the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un and President Trump. This was a little concerning (I packed a “go” bag) but for the most part, I followed the lead of most South Koreans and went on got on with my life. Things began changing right before the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. This past week there was a historic summit and Kim met Moon in South Korea. Trump is set to join in the talks sometime next month. Currently, the mood is cautiously optimistic about the chances of peace on the Korean peninsula.
If you find yourself in Seoul and wish to visit the border, the USO has an excellent tour that will take you to the DMZ and other areas of interest for just over $90. The JSA – Joint Security Area in Panmunjeom is the highlight of the day and where you will get to take a step across one of the most hostile and intensely fortified borders/ tourist attraction in the world. It is a tense, interesting, and historically impressive tour.
There are a lot of precautions and instructions when arriving at the JSA. You’ll have to leave your tour bus and board another tour bus – with a new guide – a US military soldier. They will take you to an auditorium and walk you through the history of the DMZ and give you a list of “do’s and dont’s”.
- do listen to US and ROK soldiers
- don’t wave or gesture at North Korean soldiers
- don’t run across the border yelling “I defect”
- don’t run – or make any other sudden movements
(this obviously isn’t the official list – but it’s close. See photos for the real list)
The US soldiers who lead the tour are funny in that soldier type of way. On my last trip, our guide said “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you,” at least 8 times. We laughed at first then realized he was not joking. They will yell at your sternly if you mess up (this did not happen to me personally).
Will you see North Koreans? Not always. The first time I was there, a North Korean soldier stood on the steps of Panmun Gak (North Korean building directly across from Freedom House) and some random North Koreans in oversized suits came out and stood on the balcony. But the last time I went we did not see anyone from on the north side.
The South Korean soldiers stand eerily still and ready in a Tae Kwon Do stance for the entire time visitors are present. They don’t move unless one of the tourists (my sister) starts to wander away from the group – and then, well let’s just say they move swiftly. One of the guides told us that the South Korean soldiers stationed there were the top of the class, above average height and had to be at a highly attractive. They wear the dark glasses and stand with only half of their body showing as an intimidation tactic. This is a great trip for anyone interested in mental warfare and propaganda.
Other parts of the tour include the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, Unification Bridge, Bridge of No Return, Dorasan Lookout, Dorasan Station, and an adequate (but not very tasty) Korean cafeteria-style lunch. The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel is an extremely large tunnel dug out by the North as a possible location to attack the South. Walking the tunnel is strangely aerobic and not recommended for people with certain health issues or claustrophobia. Your guide will warn you beforehand. The Dorasan Lookout is a place to look into North Korea. Not much too see, especially on a hazy day. Finally, the Dorasan Station is a station built on the hope of reunification. If you go there – you will see a modern station, a handful of tourists and an empty track heading north. That’s about it.