The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is something of a misnomer; this place just an hour north of Seoul, on the South Korean border, appears to be one of the heaviest military controlled zones in the world. With good reason. On the south side, there’s a thriving, lively culture, our beloved K-pop, technology, delicious foods and social freedom. Up north, it couldn’t be more different. A brutal regime is in power, and the DMZ is the fragile territory that lies between the two.
Why go to an active war zone? Because we know that all South Korean men must do compulsory army service for two years. We can’t visit the barracks themselves, but at the DMZ we can sense a little of what they’re being trained to protect their country from. Understanding a little more about why oppa is donning dog tags instead of glitter can only deepen your understanding of wider Korean culture and everyday life.
Many different DMZ tour plans are available – most are half-day trips and full day trips including lunch, and a basic half-day tour will cost upwards of £60. Tours will take you by bus to several locations, for example, you can go down secret tunnels dug by North Koreans to try and invade Seoul, and peep into North Korea via the Dora Observatory. However, the place you really need to see is Camp Bonifas and the JSA. Camp Bonifas is where military personnel train, eat and sleep, and here is where it all gets real. The officers give you a UN briefing on the history and purpose of the DMZ, and then ask you to sign a piece of paper that basically gives you no legal claims if anything bad goes down while you’re there. You’ll get to keep that afterwards.
The Joint Security Area (JSA) is the only safe place you’ll be able to see uniformed North Korean officers in the flesh; standing guard on the steps of a building behind a very simple looking concrete line. South Korean officers face them, standing in a tae kwon do ready position. One meeting hut straddles the concrete line, and you’re encouraged to go inside and pose with a South Korean guard for a picture, though you can’t pass a certain point even inside this building because you’d be in North Korean territory. While I visited, a North Korean ‘tour group’ also joined the officers on the stairs briefly.
We visited a few other historical spots on our tour, such as Imjingak Park and the bridge where divided families during the war were able to meet, but it’s the tense stand-off between dictatorship and freedom I could really feel in the air at the JSA that has stayed with me. I was ever more amazed and grateful to return to the lively and colourful streets of Seoul again afterwards.
Here are some handy do’s and don’ts for your trip to the DMZ.
Do reserve your tour in advance, as this is a military controlled area you can’t just rock up and expect to grab a seat. You can browse different tour plans and prices and book online in English. You’ll most likely need to give your passport number information in advance.
Do pack some very conservative clothing and footwear. Long sleeves and hemlines and high necks are good – our Korean tour guide said ‘It’s as if we’re going to church,’ after she got ticked off by officers for her knee-length skirt. If gran would approve, it’s probably ok.
Do choose clothing with a pocket so you can put your passport and camera in them when you are off the bus. You are not allowed to carry anything in your hands at the JSA – bags, coats or these essential items. You have to leave everything on the locked bus.
Do listen carefully to the guide and follow instructions from military personnel. If you joke around or don’t listen, they may not permit you to complete the tour.
Do take money for souvenirs because yes, there is a JSA shop with some very unusual souvenirs – everything from army print bags to DMZ fridge magnets.
Don’t take photographs unless the tour guide says it’s OK. That includes camera phone pics and shots out of the window of the bus when you’re in the DMZ area. If you’re not sure, ask first. You will be allowed, even encouraged, to take photographs of the JSA at certain times. Our guide happily took some of us too.
Don’t wear any clothing no-nos: military-style clothing, sportswear, jeans, low necklines, short sleeves or sandals of any kind. Military personnel at Camp Bonifas will check everyone’s clothing before you go to the JSA and if they’re unsure, you’ll have to stay put.
Don’t make any kind of gestures toward the North Korean officers. Even if they gesture towards you, don’t respond. Be aware that sometimes they do take photographs or film of tourists.