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South Korea: Visiting the DMZ

Just 30 miles north of Seoul, this buffer zone lets you peep into North Korea and explore the history of the divided peninsula

By Julian Ryall
Published 6 Oct 2018, 16:00 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 12:01 BST
Prayer ribbons tied to the fence between North and South Korea.

Prayer ribbons tied to the fence between North and South Korea.

Photograph by Getty

So, what exactly is the DMZ?

The Demilitarized Zone is where history's only communist dynasty nudges up against its capitalist neighbour. You remember the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un holding hands? That was here, at a landmark summit in April 2018. Physically, the DMZ is a 2.5-mile-wide no-man's land that runs 155 miles across the peninsula. It's been in place since the Armistice Agreement was signed during the Korean War in 1953, and remains heavily guarded by soldiers from both sides.

Sounds kind of dangerous.

Although you might feel a frisson of tension, it's pretty safe for tourists. Guides run through dos and don'ts (where and when to take photos, for example) — it's best to do as they suggest.

Will do. And apart from barbed wire, what's there to see?

Most tours from Seoul start with a bus journey to the Dora Observatory, a hilltop, camouflage-painted blockhouse with views across the DMZ into the North. Through binoculars you can see residents of Kijeong-dong (often called the 'Propaganda Village') working in the fields while children in white shirts and red neckerchiefs march off to school. There's also the 'Third Tunnel', an unfinished invasion tunnel that was being dug by the North Korean military when it was revealed to the South by a defector in 1978. Remember to wear the hard hat you're given — you're almost certain to bang your head on the low ceiling and the scaffolding holding it up.

Noted. Anything else?

The Joint Security Area, at the village of Panmunjom, is where North and South come face to face on the line that divides them. This is the most tense part of the tour, when guides hand over control to stern-faced soldiers who deliver a reminder of the rules — including not provoking the North Korean guards, just a few paces away. You can enter the blue huts that sit astride the frontier, and cross into the North Korean side of the room.

And how do I get to the DMZ — can I go it alone?

Unfortunately not — you have to go with a travel company. Tours are extremely popular though, and can get booked up weeks in advance. Also, not all tours go to every site within the DMZ, so select your tour based on what you want to see. Companies that'll take you there from Seoul include DMZ Tours, Tour DMZ, and Viator.

Did you know?

Effectively untouched for more than six decades, the DMZ has become a haven for wildlife that once thrived throughout the Korean Peninsula. It's home to deer, bears and countless other species; there have even been reported sightings of the endangered Amur leopard.

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Published in the South Korea guide, distributed with the November issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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