Visiting the DMZ has always been my dream, ever since I started cultivating a certain interest in the Korean political situation. I was indeed fascinated by the history of these two countries, the divergences in their current lifestyle, culture and language; I was intrigued by the relationship they established throughout the years and its slow changes that finally led to the celebrated meeting of the last 18th of April. This topic had always had a heavy emotional impact on me and when I was offered the chance to visit the Demilitarized Zone, namely the border area corresponding to the 38th parallel separating the two Koreas, I didn’t hesitate and immediately paid for the tour.
TALKING ABOUT THE COSTS
I must be honest: visiting the DMZ is expensive.
Talking in broad terms, 3 are the kind of tours you can possibly take part in:
1)Dorasan Security Tour
2)Yeoncheon Dreaming Tour
3)Cheorwon Security Tour
Every tour covers different landmarks and, obviously, calls for a different budget: the first one is the least expensive option, costing around 40,000₩, but the price drastically increases with the third option, exceeding 130,000₩. The price is clearly related to the kind of offer, and the Cheorwon Security tour definitely is the best and most interesting option if considered you will get the chance to see the notorious light-blue houses and the personnel patrolling the area. But the prices I have previously mentioned are just an indication: everything depends on the site you visit, the travel agency you might rely on, the offer you can bump into.
My personal suggestion is to take a look at trazy.com and scroll the multiple offers they have for tours to the DMZ and much more: as far as I know, this is the most reliable and cost-effective website related to tourism in Korea. By using this site you will definitely save up some money thanks to its competitive prices and it also is a good resource for tours and events of any kind taking place in Korea. So make sure to visit the site, especially if you are planning to visit the Demilitarized Zone: you will definitely find the cheapest offer as compared to the other prices you can find online.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Going back to my travel, the tour I joined is the Dorasan Security Tour. It wasn’t my first choice, but the offer I was given was impossible to reject: for the modest fee of 20,000₩ I wasn’t only offered the bus ride and the attractions’ tickets, but the price also covered a lunch box, a picnic dinner – with fried chicken, pizza, beer and the unfailing soju – and the companion of an amazing group of Korean university students who were part of a club aiming to show the beauties and the culture of South Korea to exchange students. Although the tour didn’t cover the most interesting and thrilling parts, it definitely was an unforgettable experience: both for the great company and for a place which hardly leaves the visitor indifferent.
The experience started late in the morning, with a bus departing from Seoul and leading to 임진각 Imjingak, the starting point of the tour. Although the bus ride revealed to be pretty short – it only took about 1 hour and a half – and generally pleasant, during the whole journey I couldn’t help myself but feel extremely anxious. I knew I wasn’t going to step into the ‘dangerous’ area, I was conscious the tour I chose to take part in was going to be generally chill in the activities, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the powerful meaning and the political importance of the place I was soon going to step in. My mind continued recalling the reports of the survivors and of those who experienced the war, as well as the war threatens that on the 17th of March – the date when my trip took place – were still discussed. My heart and mind had some trouble in metabolizing the experience I was about to live and a little bit of me wished the journey could have no end.
Eventually, the bus reached the car park, signalling the time to get off had come: and it was in that exact moment that all my expectations were radically questioned. As a matter of fact, a full-fledged amusement park stood before of my eyes as soon as the bus reached Imjingak park.
임진각 Imjingak is a park located in the South Korean city of Paju and developed on the banks of Imjin River, after whom the attraction is named.
This first stop might be seen as striking for those who had never gotten informed about the place before stepping in it:as a matter of fact, an amusement park, a picnic area, children animatedly playing with their parents and an army of colourful pinwheels deployed on a wide camp are rarely included in the collective imagination referred to the DMZ.
These elements definitely astonish the unaware visitor, but the initial scepticism immediately hands over to a genuine sense of ease and joy. Imijingak Park was indeed created to gather South Koreans and people from all over the world to celebrate peace and freedom, as well as to pray for Korea’s reunification. The vitality and the glee which overwhelm this place hardly leave the visitor indifferent, and they perfectly play the role of a slap in the face to the anger, bitterness and the sorrow caused by the past events.
If I was asked to describe this place with just one adjective I would definitely use colourful. The park is indeed colourful for the ribbons which contrast the presence of the barbed wire and for the South Korean flags the visitors decide to hang up here and there in order to give a sense of immortality to their wishes and prayers there written. It is colourful in the way children play in the park and in the way kids of any age pose in front of the multicoloured pinwheels to take a photo which will be soon shared on social networks. It is also colourful in the smile which takes shape on the face of those who gather in the park, bumping into old friends they hadn’t seen in a long time or meeting new friends with whom they can share the vitality collected in this park.
임진각 Imjingak is an extraordinary place remote from the expectations but incredibly close to the heart of whoever dreams of freedom and peace.
In the last two photos: The Bridge of Freedom.
The Dora Observatory is what I like to consider the heart of the tour.
Once we had gotten back on the bus, the driver finally drove us to what can fully-fledged be considered the highly militarized area confining with the famous demilitarized strip of land equally separating the two Koreas.
When reached the first destination leading in the protected area, the bus was stopped by a group of soldiers needing to check our passports and documents before giving the green-light. At that moment, I finally realized for the first time during the day I had finally reached the place I had always longed for: it wasn’t just a word I used to read in papers and articles online anymore, it was getting real and materialising in front of my eyes.
After the extremely young, conscripted soldier was done patrolling the bus, we could finally head to the Dora Observatory. When our guides first mentioned it, I didn’t really realise what was going to happen: for no specific reason I believed we were going to some sort of museum, but in real fact I found myself looking out a wide terrace to see with my own eyes the land which demarks the border between the two Koreas: the famous DMZ. At the observatory, you are indeed given the chance to use a pair of binnacle to spot the main landmarks or, for the budget-minders, simply look out on the balcony and squeeze your eyes to identify at least the North Korean and the South Korean flags. However, in my opinion, the 500₩ you might invest to use the binnacle wouldn’t be worth the money for the quality of the given devices. In fact, by using them, I couldn’t see much more than what I hadn’t already noticed with my bare eyes. Plus, in my opinion, the most striking moment involves the instant you finally spot the red and blue flag standing in the distance: in that second you finally realize you can see North Korea, not through pictures or the telling of the others, but through your eyes. Everyone agrees that what you see from the observatory is mere land with ordinary political meaning, a land which is no different from the trees and the soil of the South Korean counterpart, but what makes the site so significant is the weight of history and political circumstances. You cannot look out the Dora observatory without being pervaded by strong and powerful emotions, dictated by the consciousness of the background of these two countries.
THE 3rd INFILTRATION TUNNEL
The tour had as its final stop the 3rd infiltration tunnel, an infiltration tunnel dug by the North Korean army in order to spy on their enemy. It was finally discovered in the late 70’s and today it is fully part of the DMZ tourist attractions. As a matter of fact, visitors nowadays can visit the tunnel and walk through it for about 1 kilometre, until you must stop at the sight of an iron door, holding a very threatening sign. Being, in fact, an underground gallery connecting South Korea to North Korea, the passage reveals to be highly militarized from both sides and trespasser wouldn’t definitely have a good time if caught. But it was a stupid thing to specify, right?
Unfortunately, I can’t show you any of the photos of the tunnel, since it’s strictly forbidden to bring mobile phones and extra belongings into the tunnel. As a matter of fact, before starting your adventure underground, you’ll need to leave your bag in a lockbox and wear a yellow helmet. Then, you will be welcomed by a dizzying slope leading to the starting point of the portion of the tunnel available to visitors. If on the way to go can be perceived as fun to go down the steep hill, you’ll soon regret the choice of going underground: the way up is absolute hell. If walked on a normal peace, it will take at least 4 minutes to climb it all, and trust me, the slope is so steep that is recommended to uphold at the handrails to go through it. I clearly remember that, when I successfully reached the main hall and finally had the chance to sit on a bench, I couldn’t believe I had made it through. My face was purple and the breath was so heavy it took minutes before I could be able to breathe at a normal frequency.
Talking about the tunnel itself, the gallery is extremely humid, narrow and the ceiling lower and lower the more you get in the depth of it. I can boast to be tall 1,62 metre and, if at the start I could easily walk keeping my back straight, in the latter part I needed to bend down and it definitely wasn’t the most comfortable of circumstances, considering the stagnant air and the risk to hit your head every step you take. But then again, I was lucky enough to perfectly fit in most part of the gallery, but I can definitely relate to the pain of those who have to walk for 20 minutes straight bending down and inevitably hitting the head against the ceiling.
All in all, the experience was once again remarkably intense, but this time from a physical point of view. The sporty people might mock me and the fellows who share a not athletic lifestyle, but the visit of the 3rd tunnel can truly be challenging and unfortunately limiting for those with reduced mobility.
Do I suggest the visit to the DMZ? Absolutely YES.
Whether you are interested in the Korean historical and political situation or not, this place is a great memorandum of the brutality of the War. This is a place with different facets – just look at the vitality and freshness of Imjingak opposed to the gloomy infiltration tunnel, and every side of it is an important reminder of the effects and sorrows caused by the Korean War.
If you ever get the chance to visit South Korea, do yourself a favour and join any of the tours to the DMZ (even though, I want to remark that the Cheorwon Security Tour is the most significant and interesting one): remind that, other than being an incredible site for the historical and political affectionate, it also is a place which is not eternal. In view of the most recent events which took place in 2018, we can’t be sure for how long the DMZ is still going to exist, or if any change is going to be made: it’s a place destined to mutations, due to its geopolitical nature, and visiting it now might give you a different overview compared to a possible visit in the next five, ten, twenty or fifty years.
ESSENTIAL TO TAKE NOTE TO
So this is the end of this article, but before we say goodbye, I want to include a short list of two indications you’d better bear in mind before visiting the DMZ.
- BRING YOUR PASSPORT. As mentioned before, in case you plan to visit any of the attractions located within the properly called ‘demilitarized zone’, you need to show your identification document. In case you forget it or you don’t have a valid ID with you (i.e. anything which is not a passport or an Alien Registration Card), you will be asked to leave the bus and you’ll be stopped from continuing the tour.
Otherwise, if you plan to only visit the Imjingak Park, no specific document is needed to be shown – even though it’s always recommendable to carry a document wherever you go during a travel.
- BE MINDFUL TO YOUR ATTIRE. This specific advice refers to two main different reasons: comfort and context. With regard to the first point, you must consider you are going to join some activities which require a certain mobility which can be hampered by an inappropriate outfit. Wearing flip flops or high heels if you know you are going to visit the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel is certainly a suicide play, as well as wearing a miniskirt or any other kind of fashionable but impractical clothes.
As to the above mentioned ‘context’, remind yourself you are not a simple tourist but a visitor entering in political area of high relevance. Every circumstance and context requires a certain outfit and the DMZ is not an exception. So keep in mind this advice, especially if you are going to join the Panmunjeom Tour.
Thank you for reading, I hope to see you again in a new blog post!~
In case you are interested in knowing more about the experiences I lived in South Korea, I recommend you check out the following article: