For those particularly interested in society, history and politics in relation to travel, the demilitarised zone, or the DMZ, on the border between North and South Korea is well worth visiting on a day trip from Seoul, the South Korean capital. If you have time to spare on your South Korean journey, it really is an experience like no other. One of our favourite specialist guides will open up your eyes to the geopolitics and conflict that has shaped relations between these two countries, adding context, personal perspective and an insider’s angle. The world’s most heavily fortified border, which slices Korea in two, is integral to understanding the region today.
As we drove north from Seoul towards Panmunjom, we asked our private guide many questions – from whether it is a volatile place and why it has become a tourist attraction to why the DMZ still exists today. He explained to us that it is a 4km wide belt, stretching 250km, which was put in place as a ceasefire to the Korean War in 1953. The Chinese and North Koreans pulled back 2km north and the UN forces retracted 2km to the south, creating a ‘No Man’s Land’. Tanks, heavy artillery and mines exist on the Northern and Southern Limit Lines that are marked with barbed wire fences, but not within the DMZ itself, as was part of the armistice agreement.
The ‘Bridge of no Return’ at the Korean DMZ from the South Korean side
Running through the middle of ‘No Man’s Land’ is Panmunjom, also known as the ‘truce village’, which houses the Joint Security Area (JSA). This is where negotiations between both sides took place and where, today, democracy and communism now stand face to face in animosity. The JSA is the only section of the Korean DMZ where North and South Korean forces stand opposite each other, and where tourists can go, from either the South Korean or North Korean side. Of course, depending on which side you visit from, you will have a completely different perspective and experience.
As we arrived in Panmunjom, we could feel the tension in the air and our guide effectively pointed out the significant buildings and checkpoints where all of the historical moments occurred and treaties were signed. As we approached the JSA, the small blue buildings came into sight, and we were given access to the buildings, within which half of the room still belongs to North Korea and the other half to South Korea. There is a line across the wooden table in the room showing the exact division, where you can place one foot in the communist north and the other foot in the democratic south. We interacted with the South Korean soldiers who were friendly and happy to answer our questions. The soldiers on the northern side were more serious and unwilling to interact with us, wearing much more austere and socialist military uniforms.
Panmunjom, also known as ‘No Man’s Land’ runs through the middle of the DMZ, on the border of North & South Korea
Our guide then led us to the secret tunnels, known formally as the Tunnels of Aggression. Since 15th November 1974, South Korea has discovered four tunnels crossing the DMZ. The orientation of the blasting lines within each tunnel have indicated that they were dug by North Korea. We learnt how North Korea subsequently claimed that the tunnels were for coal mining, but our guide explained that no coal was ever found inside. Instead, they are believed to have been planned as a military invasion route by North Korea. With advance notice, we can organise for our clients to go to these tunnels, gaining a further insight into relations and tensions in the Korean peninsula.
Spending a day visiting the DMZ was a completely fascinating and unforgettable experience, and I cannot recommend it more highly to any of our clients interested in the history, geopolitics and geography of the region today.