About the DMZ
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at Panmunjom is a heavily fortified buffer zone that separates North Korea and South Korea. The 4km wide DMZ stretches 250km (160miles) across the Korean peninsula and was created in 1953 during the armistice after the Korean War. Here I will recount my Panmunjom tour in December 2018.
The DMZ has been the scene of many tense stand-offs between the North and South with soldiers eyeballing each other across the demarcation line. Thankfully, in recent years the situation has improved drastically as tensions have eased between the two Koreas. The Panmunjom DMZ is considered one of the most iconic landmarks in Asia.
I had first read about the Demilitarized Zone in an old copy of National Geographic almost 20 years ago and remember studying the maps and infographics with interest. Little did I imagine that one day I would actually visit the famed 38th Parallel, and from the North Korean side!
Fast forward to winter of 2018 and I was keen to avoid another disappointing Christmas in China. I decided to book onto Young Pioneer Tours’ Christmas tour of the DPRK.
Having visited North Korea once before for a day trip, I was keen to explore the country further. The tour would include a train ride across the country to the capital Pyongyang, the DMZ and the town of Kaesong.
This is my guide to visiting the DMZ from the north side, but there are also many popular tours for visiting the DMZ from South Korea too.
After an action-packed few days in Pyongyang, we left the Ryangang Hotel early for the 3-hour drive south to the border. We made a quick pit-stop at the “Monument to the Three-Point Charter to Reunification” otherwise known as the Reunification Arch.
The arch sits across the reunification highway that leads from Pyongyang to Kaesong. It stretches 55m (180ft) tall and is constructed of grey concrete blocks so beloved of communist dictatorships the world over.
The sun was just rising behind the fields outside Pyongyang and there was no other traffic on the roads lending an eerie, post-apocalyptic feel to the place.
After a ten-minute stop, we were soon on our way again. It was fascinating to get a real glimpse of rural North Korea as we passed through farmland and small villages.
Motorway Services – North Korean Style
It was also impossible to miss the fortifications put in place to halt an advance of enemy troops (South Korean or American) from the south. It reminded me of what our guide told us about the army checkpoints on every bridge we saw on the train.
Every bridge and tunnel is wired with explosives and in the event of an invasion, they would be blown up to prevent the enemy from reaching the capital.
Consequently, every time we passed through a tunnel or over a bridge, I hoped that the soldiers inside their little booths didn’t have itchy trigger fingers!
About halfway into the journey, we stopped at possibly the strangest motorway service station I had ever been in. South Mimms on the M25 it was not! The concrete structure spanning the road looked normal enough, but the very fact that I was in a motorway service station in the DPRK amused me no end.
Inside the building was pretty barren but there was a toilet and stand selling snacks, coffee and commemorative plates featuring the Kim dynasty.
I walked around the car park and snuck past a hedge into a field to snap some photographs but did an about-turn as I saw someone on a ridge looking down. Possibly a farmer, possibly not. Best to take no chances!
After 30 minutes we hit the road again and continued our journey south. As we neared the border the city of Kaesong came into view.
The skyline looked nothing like the utilitarian “workers’ paradise” of Pyongyang and looked a lot more “Korean” with wooden buildings and the distinctive east-Asian rooftops.
Arriving at Panmunjom DMZ
We arrived at the first checkpoint where the bus pulled over and we all got out. There was a stone obelisk with propaganda murals displaying the North’s commitment to reunification.
A solemn finger reached skywards over the top of the Korean peninsula and on the other side two smiling children amidst a sea of flowers.
In front of us was a large gate and high barbed-wire fence. Soldiers strutted around in their new winter uniforms which looked a lot more modern than the old great-coats and Russian-style hats of a few years ago.
I felt a little conspicuous in my combat trousers and British army boots and one of my fellow tourists pointed this out with a grin.
We were led into a building that housed a souvenir shop selling the usual tourist trinkets and Korean alcohol. On sale were also original propaganda posters (hand-painted, not prints) and watercolours of the Korean landscape.
Here we waited for our new guide; an army Major of the Korean People’s Army. He greeted our own Aussie tour guide with genuine warmth and it was strange to see them both joking with each other (under normal circumstances, nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s not really the image of the North Korean military that most people have).
Tour of Panmunjom DMZ
We re-boarded the bus along with the Major and crossed the first of many checkpoints. In the distance, the flag of the DPRK fluttered in the breeze atop its 160m (525ft) flagpole, the fourth highest in the world.
In a strange twist of fate, I’ve also seen the third and fifth highest flags in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan! I looked out of the window and could see trenches with mannequins dressed in army fatigues holding wooden guns. We soon stopped at a series of whitewashed wooden buildings.
There were watch-towers and radio masts all over and I made sure to ask every time I took a photograph. Our hosts were surprisingly receptive and we had a lot more freedom than I expected (just as in Pyongyang in the days previous).
We followed the army Major and his entourage into the grounds of the huts where he explained their significance in brokering the armistice between the South and America.
As we entered one of the huts there were two flags encased in cabinets; a flag of the DPRK and a tattered “stars and stripes”.
There were fits of suppressed giggles as the translator explained the Major’s words: “If the imperialist USA try to invade again, we will surely crush them”. I laughed not so much at the sentiment, but more so for the hyperbolic language.
The Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom
After a tour of the huts, we were back on the bus and crossed another checkpoint before arriving at the Joint Security Area (JSA) also known as Panmunjom.
This area with its bright blue huts is where North and South Korean soldiers have stood in a tense face-off for years. Now though, the South Korean’s have withdrawn troops in an effort to stabilize relations with the North.
We were taken up to the roof of a modern-looking office building from where we could look down to the soldiers marching in step below. Gone are the old soviet-style greatcoats which have been replaced with more modern-looking uniforms. In the distance, the flag of South Korea fluttered in the wind.
We were allowed to snap away at the soldiers and buildings which was surprising, and I even managed to get a picture with the Major which was a real coup!
After 10 minutes or so we boarded the bus and left the area through the same checkpoints to spend a pleasant afternoon in the North Korean city of Kaesong.
About the DMZ Tour
In the past, the situation has been very tense at the DMZ, with propaganda being blared across in both directions via large loudspeakers. Defections from the North and other ‘border incidents’ have done little to ease tensions.
However, things at the DMZ are changing rapidly. Where you could once enter the blue JSA huts and stand astride both Koreas, the South Koreans have locked the doors and left in a gesture of goodwill.
In October 2018, North and South Korean guard posts as well as numerous landmines were destroyed in another act of reconciliation.
With the above in mind, if you wish to take a DMZ tour as it still is in its heavily fortified incarnation, then, now would be the time to visit!
Young Pioneer Tours can arrange group and bespoke tours to the DMZ, so visit while you still can! What’s more, quote TRIPYPT20 and get a free exclusive t-shirt when booking!
About the author:
Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has travelled to over 60 countries, lived in China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.
Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of Europe and Asia by train, bus and boat.
Where I am now: Armenia 🇦🇲