Chris Choi

What Is the DMZ in Korea and Is It Safe to Visit?

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As the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ in Korea) gets more and more attention in the main stream media we find ourselves inundated with questions, concerns and interest about our unique border which separates us from North Korea. We therefore decided to create this post of frequently asked questions. We did our best to cover the main points of interest, but if we missed anything feel free to ask us more questions in the comments below.

What is the DMZ?

The Demilitarized Zone is where North and South Korea come together to form the most heavily-fortified border on the planet. The DMZ in Korea is not only the most unique destination in the country but is in fact, one of the most fascinating places to see in the entire world. Curious travelers from all over the globe flock to experience this mysterious destination, hoping to gain an insider understanding of North Korea – the world’s most secretive country. Rated the number one tourist activity in the nation, the DMZ in Korea offers a deep dive into history, politics, and the Korean War.

Can you visit the DMZ in Korea?

Not only can you visit the DMZ in Korea, but this is in fact, a must! An estimated 1.2 million visitors come to this historic area each year. You will only be allowed to go on one of the official DMZ tours which are led by a licensed tour guide. Why? Due to its unique position as a heavily-guarded border, there are many rules to abide by in order to help maintain peace and stability. From how many people are allowed to enter at once, to what time of day you can visit, the tours follow strict regulations imposed by the United Nations. Going on a certified tour is also the best way to learn all that is noteworthy in a safe and responsible way.

Why is it called DMZ?

The DMZ sign post outside the DMZ theatre

The acronym “DMZ” stands for Demilitarized Zone. As its name suggests this is because there is a buffer zone between North and South Korea where no military personnel, installations or activities are allowed. It is also often regarded as a stretch of no man’s land and is roughly 4 KM wide. Its purpose is to preserve the peace between both sides and avoid military confrontations. The only exception to this rule is the Joint Security Area (JSA) where troops from both sides secure an area used for peaceful talks and negotiation between the leaders. The best way to think of the DMZ is as a neutral ground where the North and South can communicate.

Is the DMZ in Korea considered a combat zone?

While South Korea’s DMZ comes as close to a combat zone as can be, there is usually no active military action. In other words, you hopefully will not see any shooting or other displays of power. In fact, the Demilitarized Zone’s main purpose is to foster peace, demonstrating that safety can be achieved without having to actively exhibit force. The zone does have some very particular aspects to it. The sand along the fence for example is being very neatly groomed so that South Korean and American soldiers can see whether there have been any infiltration attempts from the North.

How far is the DMZ from Seoul?

A sign at Imjingak showing that the distance to Seoul is 53 km, while Kaesong is just 22 km away.

The South Korean DMZ lies around 50 kilometers away from Seoul (38 kilometers from Pyongyang). The journey takes about 60-90 minutes depending on where you depart from and the traffic conditions on the day. To get there, you will need to pass through a number of military-controlled security checkpoints en route. Your tour guide will request your passport and you will be required to present it to a soldier for inspection.

Does the 38th parallel still exist?

The name “38th parallel” pertains to the line that used to divide North from South Korea during World War II. You can also see it being referred to as “latitude 38° N.” The line was crafted according to the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945 by US military planners. The 38th parallel helped mark the Japanese surrender to the US on one side and to the USSR on the other. Today, the DMZ intersects the 38th parallel but does not follow it according to the post-war division. The west side of the Demilitarized zone falls by the south end of the parallel, and the DMZ’s east end reaches the parallel to the north.

So why is Korea still divided?

The end of World War II was immediately followed by the Cold War, where the North under Kim-II-Sung turned towards a communist regime and the South, led by Syngman Rhee became a United States ally. Due to their opposing choices, the two countries have remained separate.

What is the best DMZ tour?

At the DMZ Exhibition Hall with one of VIP Travel's tour guides

The best way to choose between your options is to understand the differences. A half day DMZ tour visits all the main spots including Imjingak Park, The Bridge of Freedom, The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, The DMZ Theater & Exhibition Hall, Dora Observatory and Dorasan Station. While a full day DMZ JSA tour on the other hand also visits the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the afternoon.

It’s important to note that entering the JSA comes with further restrictions. Children need to be 12 years or older (no exceptions), there are limited numbers of people allowed to visit each day (controlled by UN Command) and bookings need to be placed at least 72 hours in advance.

Therefore if you wish to visit with younger children, have a busy schedule, or need to book on short notice you should choose the half day option. If you wish to extend your visit to enter the JSA in the afternoon, then the full day option is for you.

How long is the DMZ tour?

You have two options when it comes to the length of your tour. You can either opt for the half day option or the full day option. The Half Day DMZ tour is available at 8 AM and 11 AM, from Tuesday through Sunday. The duration is a total of six hours.

The full day DMZ JSA tour is available Tuesday through Saturday and leaves at 8 AM. The duration of this tour is nine hours. Don’t forget to book at least 72 hours in advance so your tour leader can obtain the necessary permission for your entrance from UN Command.

Is the DMZ safe to visit?

On a DMZ tour looking across the border at Panmungak

While the DMZ in Korea is certainly considered “the world’s most dangerous border,” there is no threat to civilians or visitors. Although still considered an active war zone, it is now a place of sustainable peace and therefore the DMZ is safe to visit. The only aspect that may still appear dangerous is the fact that there are numerous troops, both from the north, south, and the United States who protect the territory and can be seen actively patrolling the region. If you’re considering a tour of the DMZ, there is absolutely nothing to worry about as guided visits are permitted and in fact, help boost the tourism economy of the country.

Can you cross the DMZ?

United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Conference Room

In short: no, the Demilitarized Zone in Korea may not be crossed. This applies both to soldiers and visitors. While North and South Korea share this border, the two countries have different immigration and travel policies. The North is notorious for its difficult restrictions on travel, so venturing fully inside North Korea will need additional visa arrangements and paperwork.

What you can do, however, is cross the Military Demarcation Line which is the actual border between the two countries. The line is located inside the UNCMAC – the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission. In this case, you will technically be on North Korean territory.

Are there tigers in the DMZ?

Nature flourishing inside the demilitarized zone with green grasses, trees and streams

You may not know this about the Demilitarized Zone in Korea, but aside from being a key military point, the geographical region itself is incredibly biodiverse! There have been sightings of the endangered Siberian tiger within the zone. While most visitors flock here to learn about history and politics, there are nature-enthusiasts who are enticed by the possibility of spotting the rare cat. During the Korean War, a lot of farmland was abandoned due to the military conflict, so nature took over. The DMZ in Korea is now the home to numerous species of exotic birds as well, including white-naped and red-crowned cranes and the Amur leopard.

What do you wear to a DMZ tour?

Someone posing in front of a sign at the Third Tunnel of Aggression on one of our DMZ tours from Seoul

There is actually no specific dress code when visiting the DMZ, with the exception of the Joint Security Area (JSA) which does have a strict dress code. The reason for these rules is that this is a visit to a highly important geopolitical area and by dressing appropriately, you show respect. Furthermore, there have been attempts to use photos of casually dressed tourists in order to spread propaganda in North Korea by suggestion that the rest of the world is poor.

If visiting the JSA, you will not be allowed in with ripped jeans, tank tops, sleeveless shirts, or T-shirts without a collar. Shorts and miniskirts are also a no-no. Refrain from wearing any clothing that may have military print on it, or any attire that shows a national flag or spells out nationality. Workout clothes, which may be a bit of a surprise, aren’t allowed either even though you’re donning a new pair of Fila sweatpants. 

Now, on the topic of what you can wear to the JSA – you are more than welcome to wear comfortable attire, such as shirts, blouses, slacks, jeans, a knee-length dress with a cardigan or long sleeves. For shoes, you can choose loafers, moccasins, or dressier sneakers, but stay away from sandals.

Can South Koreans go to North Korea?

North Korea is notorious for its secrecy and tight travel restrictions. Currently, South Koreans are allowed to visit the DMZ as a part of an organized excursion. During the Korean War, many families were separated from loved ones who are now allowed to reunite at Mount Kumgang which is a resort close to the shared border. Otherwise, for a South Korean citizen to travel north, they would need to receive an official letter of invitation from North Korea’s government. In January 2020, CNN reported that North Korea is considering new rules that would let their neighbors travel independently for tourism. That plan, however, is still in development.

Can you take pictures at the DMZ?

Due to safety policies, you need to be mindful of where you can and can not take photos at the DMZ in Korea. For the most part, the DMZ is safe for photos while the JSA has some strict rules to follow. If visiting the JSA, you will be given a waiver to sign upon entering the DMZ which will include instructions on photography.

The waiver also states that you bear responsibility for yourself during the tour in case of an injury, accident, or even death. Legally, the paperwork needs to convey these things but this should not worry you because you will be accompanied by a tour guide who has led these groups hundreds of times. After all, this is the number 1 rated activity in South Korea!

The Third Infiltration Tunnel is an area that explicitly prohibits taking photos. In fact, you will be asked to leave your phone and camera in a locker during your visit, free of charge. The other restriction to bear in mind is to never, under any circumstance take photos of the North Korean soldiers which is also prohibited. Otherwise, unless advised against, you are free to take photos inside the DMZ. If you have any questions or are unsure, it’s best to ask your tour guide.

Why do South Korean soldiers wear sunglasses?

South Korean JSA border guard wearing sunglass at the DMZ in Korea

Visitors to the DMZ in Korea have noticed that the South Korean soldiers wear sunglasses. Is this a fashion statement? Not exactly. The mandatory military attire of South Korean soldiers includes a helmet for protection and a pair of dark sunglasses. The reason is that as the nature of the soldiers’ work requires them to be even-keeled in any and all situations, the sunglasses manage to help conceal any emotion that may become evident. In other words, the sunglasses are the small accessory that helps South Korean soldiers achieve a look of neutrality, without their faces giving away hints of information.

What is the Joint Security Area?

Looking at Panmungak from Freedom House during our DMZ JSA tour

The Joint Security Area (JSA) is territory within the Demilitarized Zone. Also known as Panmunjom or the Truce Village, this is one of the most exciting places to visit inside the DMZ in Korea. Here, you will see opposing soldiers stand face-to-face! The role of the JSA is to serve as a neutral place for negotiation between the two nations, supported by the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC).

The JSA is heavily regulated. Remember to make reservations 72 hours in advance, take note of the dress code and the youngest person in your group needs to be 12-years-old or above.

How many landmines are in the DMZ?

A warning sign about landmines at the DMZ

According to the Korea Times, there are one million landmines hidden inside the DMZ. They were installed during the Korean War, between 1950-1953. In 2018, efforts began to remove landmines from both sides of the DMZ. While there have been few accidents, mainly in the areas outside of the DMZ, you don’t need to worry about your visit. The entire region of the Demilitarized Zone has been secured and is safe for tourism.

What can you do at the DMZ?

People crossing the Bridge of Freedom at Imjingak. In the background you can see the railway bridge that connects with Freedom Bridge.

The South Korea DMZ has plenty of activities for those looking to understand geopolitics and history. On a typical DMZ trip, you will see Imjingak Park which was built as a safe space where the newly arrived refugees from North Korea received consolation. You’ll pass by the Unification Pond the design of which is modeled after the shape of the Korean peninsula. This is a wonderful spot to take photos! Right next to the pond, you’ll find Peace Bell.

You will have the chance to literally walk through history as you cross the Bridge of Freedom, erected in 1953, used to liberate 12,773 prisoners! Another sight not to be missed is the Third Infiltration Tunnel. Exploring the inside of the tunnel is arguably one of the most exciting parts of the tour. The tunnel is 1,635 meters-long, at two meters height and two wide. It was discovered by South Korea in 1978. The original purpose of the tunnel was to allow the North to spy into the enemy camp.

Dorasan (Dora) Observatory will give you an amazing bird’s eye view of the DMZ and on a clear day, you can catch an unhindered glimpse into the mysterious North. For the history buffs, the DMZ Exhibition Hall and DMZ Theater hold years worth of fascinating facts, documents, and photos.

Who owns the DMZ in Korea?

A soldier standing guard in front of the Bridge of No Return facing North

The DMZ zone in Korea is neutral territory and therefore, owned by nobody. If you’re wondering who governs the DMZ, The United States helps patrol the area according to the MDL (Military Demarcation Line), joined by troops from each of the two Koreas. Both troops have specific parameters that they are allowed to patrol, without stepping on enemy territory. The very middle of the DMZ has two kilometers on each end that are free of all military personnel. Neither side is allowed to cross the MDL. Doing so will be perceived as an act of aggression and lead to a conflict.

Where did Trump and Kim Jong-un meet at the DMZ?

President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un shake hands across the border at the DMZ in Korea

In 2019, the United States President Donald Trump met Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s Supreme leader at a section of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) between Freedom House and Panmungak. This section of the MDL is located inside the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone in Korea. During the meeting Trump was invited by Kim to briefly cross over to North Korean soil where they shook hands and took photos. After stepping back into South Korean territory, the two leaders were greeted by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In.

How big is the DMZ in Korea?

The DMZ in Korea is about 4 kilometers wide and 241 kilometers long. The line was originally drawn at the end of the Korean War in 1953, where the forces of each nation were pulled back by two kilometers from the ceasefire line.

How many US troops are stationed in the Korean DMZ?

Entering Camp Bonifas on our JSA tour

On the South Korean side of the JSA, military support is provided by the United Nations Command Security Battalion. The battalion includes about 650 troops in which the United States troops make up for 10% and local South Korean forces comprise the remaining 90%. The battalion guards their assigned premises 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Have there been any incidents at the DMZ?

As the DMZ is inherently an active war zone that separates two opposing nations, there have been a few incidents over the years. The “Axe Murder Incident” is perhaps the most famous. On August 18, 1976 two United States Army officers were killed by North Korean forces. General Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett were killed with an axe at the JSA. The pair took part in the cutting of a tree within the Joint Security Area when a conflict arose and led to a fatal end.

A more recent incident that made international media coverage pertains to Oh Chong Song – a North Korean soldier who tried to defect and escape the country on November 13, 2017. The soldier drove a green jeep and smashed right through a military checkpoint. He was shot five times, but managed to survive.

What else would you like to know?

Feel free to ask us any questions you have about the DMZ in Korea and we’ll do our best to answer them for you in the comments below.

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