Dan and I visited South Korea in November 2019 and, like many tourists, we had a few discussions about whether to visit the North/South Korean border, referred to as the Demilitarized Zone or the “DMZ.” I very much wanted to and quite frankly, could not imagine going all the way to South Korea without at least trying to catch a glimpse of the infamous country. Dan, on the other hand, had zero interest and preferred to spend his time on more “positive” things. We compromised by doing a half-day guided tour from Seoul to the DMZ with I Love Seoul Tour, which tour got totally restructured due to an “African Swine Flu outbreak.” Reflecting back on our half-day tour, Dan enjoyed it more than he thought he would, and I was underwhelmed. Interesting and historical for sure, but not a “must see” in my opinion. This post is about our personal experience in November 2019. Information and safety at the Korean border changes daily, as do what things tourists can access, and travelers should always review the most up-to-date information before engaging in such a trip.
Our trip to the North Korean border began at 7:45 AM at the Koreana Hotel near Seoul’s City Hall, where many people boarded a large tour bus and set out north to the border. The border between North and South Korea is quite close to Seoul, only about 60 kilometers away by car, and is largely formed by the Imjin River. Despite being so close to Seoul, I found the drive to be very bumpy (I got motion sickness, which never happens to me) and the border area was noticeably colder than Seoul.
We arrived at our first and most exciting stop after about a hour after departure – the Ganghwa Peace Observatory (which technically falls outside the DMZ). Ganghwa is an observatory that was used strictly for military purposes until 2008, when parts of the Observatory opened to the public. The lowest and highest levels are still military-only, and you can see armed military personnel working at the Observatory. The most exciting part of Ganghwa, however, is that visitors are permitted to use intense binoculars to peer into North Korea for a small fee.
Before using the binoculars, we watched a short historical video on the formation of North Korea and the border, which was quite depressing (no surprise there), but pointed out what we could see using the binoculars (farm land, a school, a totally fake town – it was wild). At this point, I was realizing just how little I knew about the North and South Korean conflict.
The cost to use the binoculars is approximately 50 US cents for two minutes. I recommend bringing 500 won coins to use in the binoculars, but there is a money changing machine on site (no credit cards) to break down larger bills. There are a number of binoculars at the observatory, both inside and outside. Dan and I both used the binoculars for several minutes. While expecting to just see buildings, we actually saw people working in fields and a few people riding bicycles. It was fantastically interesting and for me at least, made me really feel for the people we were watching. Did they have enough food? Do they like living where they live? What do they know about the rest of the world just across the river? Or were they just actors directed by the North Korean government? I will never know, but it was eye-opening. I still think about an elderly man I saw riding a bicycle. We stayed at Ganghwa for about 30 minutes.
The next stop on our tour was a few minutes away at the Veteran’s Memorial Park, at least that was the name according to our guide (I have not been able to successfully confirm this and there was a bit of a language barrier). This small park on the side of the road is a memorial to those from all countries who died fighting in the Korean War. There was a little monument to each country who participated and a few life size soldier statutes (really bizarre). Many people took pictures with these…. Interesting to visit, but I could have skipped this park. More interesting to me were views of the town below which was heavily surrounded by prison-style fencing to protect against North Korean military efforts. After about 20 minutes, we boarded the bus and drove to Imjinjak Park, the final stop on our tour.
Imjinjak Park, which is located just 7 kilometers from the Military Demarcation Line (i.e., the DMZ) was a real surprise to me. I expected a somber memorial, but found an odd Disney-esq tourist park with several historical sites right alongside restaurants and shops for tourists. It was sort of a bizarre dark tourism park. After visiting, I was not surprised to later find out that Imjinjak Park is actually named Imjinjak Resort. Built in 1972, Imjinjak Resort was built with the hope that someday the unification of Korea would be possible. That hope certainly came through during our visit, but Imjinjak also seemed a lot like a money-making tourist attraction. It was an odd mix for sure.
Our first stop at Imjinjak was an art installation in an old underground military bunker called Art Space Beat 131. This only took about 10 minutes but was interesting to see. Our visit to the underground bunker was followed by a walk on the old Freedom Bridge, the location of the last bridge connecting North and South Korea that was blown up in early 1951. An old train remains on the bridge with many bullet holes left over from the war. It was certainly odd seeing this somber train set in the middle of the Imjinjak “resort.”
We also visited the Mangbaedan Alter at Imjinjak, which is famous as the place where Korean’s separated from their families in the North visit to perform ancestral rites by bowing toward their hometowns every New Year’s Day and Chuseok (Korean Fall holiday). Lots of beautifully placed ribbons make up the Mangbaedan Alter. Both beautiful and sad, viewing the Mangnaedan Alter was one of my favorite memories of the tour. It definitely inspired hope for the future.
We looked around Imjinjak Resort for a bit longer prior to leaving and hit the shops for snacks and souvenirs to take home. Interestingly, the shops offered everything from a Popeye’s Fried Chicken chain to DMZ craft beer. Yes, DMZ craft beer by South Korea’s Playground Brewery. I can’t hate them for capitalizing on this. We obviously made that purchase (beer was not great, but Playground had some other good ones). I also purchased stamps from North Korean pre-split and a very cool magnet.
Leaving Imjinjak, I was sad for the people whose families remain split up and confused by the “resort” concept of Imjinjak. Imjinjak provided a really interesting look into many Korean’s opinions on reunification. I have always thought of North Korea as being a terrible actor on the world stage, but a visit to this part of the world exposed how many people living in South Korea are closely tied to the North and desperate to reunite with their families and traditions that remain across the border. Certainly a different narrative than I hear back in the US. We drove back to Seoul after our visit at Imjinjak, arriving around 2 PM.
I could not write this post without mentioning that arguably the biggest “bucket list” check regarding the DMZ was missing from our tour – a visit to the JSA. The JSA, or the Joint Security Area, is the infamous spot where North and South Korean forces stand face to face, and this was supposed to be the highlight of our day trip. However, the JSA frequently closes for a variety of reasons, and it was closed on our trip due to a Swine Flu outbreak amongst pigs along the border. Knowing what I know now about COVID-19, I have to wonder if it could have been related to that… Who knows, it seems a bit early, but I am here for a good conspiracy theory! In any case, we told several Koreans that we went to the border and that the JSA was closed and their response was always the same: the JSA is hardly ever open to tourists. So there you go, don’t count on visiting the JSA. We also missed visiting the infiltration tunnels (where the North attempted to infiltrate the South) along the border for the same reason. Despite missing what I thought I was most wanting to see, I left our half-day trip totally satisfied and with a new perspective on the Korean conflict.
I would also note that while you can do exactly what we did on your own, you cannot visit the JSA on your own. And with rules constantly changing, I think a tour is the easiest way to visit the border. Many, many companies run these types of tours daily. I would further note that these tours are your standard “big box” tour, with strict time limits, assigned seats on the bus, and a requirement that all tour participants wear a large pendant indicating that one is a tour member. This is not at all the way I like to travel, but it was what we had to do for this tour. I would also point out that if you go to the JSA, you must have your passport. We brought ours on tour, but did not have to show them to anyone.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Ganghwa Peace Observatory: 산6-1 Cheolsan-ri, Yangsa-myeon, Ganghwa-gun, Incheon, South Korea. Open 9:00 – 18:00. Closed Wednesday. Subject to safety concerns, you can visit on your own. Plenty of parking on site. There is a large hill that must be walked to reach the observatory from the parking lot. Ganghwa claims to have restaurants and shops on site, but during our visit on a toilet was open…
Another observatory, the Dorasan Observatory, is also along the border and frequently visited on these types of tours.
Imjinjak Resort: 148-53, Imjingak-ro, Paju-si, Gyeonggi-do. Claims to be open year round. The linked website has a lot of information in English. Toilets, shops, restaurants, and petrol on site.
I Love Seoul Tours: We did the Morning Tour at a cost of $45 US per person. If you really want to visit the JSA, confirm with your tour guide whether this will be possible as close as possible to your day tour. For example, our tour was totally different than what we booked due to the “swine flu.”
FYI – Many, many tour companies offer tours to the border with various add ons, from lunch to pistol shooting. Google around and find what’s best for your trip
. Also, bring your passport. Passports are required if you are lucky enough to visit the JSA.