Few people in the world (including Kim Jong-Un’s BFF Dennis Rodman, tourists touring with accredited tour groups, and North Korean citizens themselves) can proudly say that “I have stepped foot on North Korea!” — I am one of those people.
Last 2013, on the second day of my South Korea trip, I spent valentine’s day at the Korean Demilitarized Zone or more popularly called DMZ. And it was one of the most unforgettable valentine’s day ever (no offense to Beep who I left in the Philippines to celebrate v-day by himself).
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DMZ is a strip of land that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. Despite being a demilitarized zone (considered a neutral territory because neither side is allowed to control it), the Korean DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the world. What does that mean for tourists like me? If someone makes a wrong move (like this South Korean tourist who got shot), we could get shot by North Korean snipers. Or worse, our tour day could be a day when North Koreans decide to attack South Koreans in DMZ just like the many cases of incident and incursions at the border listed here.
The DMZ tour is not a joke (we were a part of the USO DMZ/JSA and 3rd tunnel tour which is the only tour that will take you this close to North Korea). We found that out when we were in that room designated for the orientation. We were made to sign a document which states, “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” Still not scared?
Your tour guide will be an official military personnel (usually from the US) with a serious look in his face and will strictly keep all of you in line and tell you to not take this number of steps to your left or right, to only look straight ahead, to not point fingers at anything, and to not take pictures in certain areas. You will feel like you’re in a military camp and you won’t help but stand straight at all times and barely move your head.
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Don’t worry, MOST people will do everything this military personnel will say because everyone’s lives depend on each of your actions. I say MOST because we were unfortunately grouped with an annoying woman who of all the places in DMZ, she had to point to a North Korean standing and observing us in the building of the North Korea side at the Joint Security Area (JSA) Panmunjom (the best and scariest part of the tour). The JSA is that area with the blue buildings where official negotiations between the two sides are held. It’s popularly known as that area in the border where North and South Koreans stand face-to-face. Luckily for us, nobody got shot (your tour guide will tell you about the North Korean snipers carefully watching your every move). The woman just got reprimanded by our military personnel tour guide.
We were taken inside the middle blue building where half of our group (myself included) were told to step forward to the other side of the table, and then we heard the magic words “You are now in North Korean territory”, which sent chills down my spine. I officially stepped foot on North Korean soil!
A South Korean soldier inside the blue building. Wouldn’t it be fun if he was a famous Korean actor/singer on his military service? Haha
The rest of the tour will take you to observatory decks (one of which is where you will see a fake city with no residents at all made by North Koreans to show that they’re rich and progressive too like the South), sites in DMZ where the famous attacks and murders happened, the eerie train station that once connected South and North Korea, and one of the tunnels dug up by the North Koreans to attack South through Seoul.
a peek into North Korean territory
the now closed train station that once connected North and South Korea
Not to frighten you or anything but, see how close DMZ is to Seoul?
Though we’re not really big fans of tours, this is one of those exceptions to the ‘DIY it’ rule. You cannot DIY this. The DMZ tour is one of my favorite travel memories. Touring in the North Korean side with accredited tour groups is also on my bucket list.
The USO tour, that you can book online here (look for DMZ/JSA and 3rd tunnel) costs 96,000 won ($80 / Php4,000+). Pricey but I promise you, it’s worth it. Remember to bring your passport when you go to the assembly place (Camp Kim USO). They also have a dress code which will be sent to your email with the itinerary and receipt upon paying. Also, children below 10 years old are not allowed in the DMZ tour.
Have fun and remember, don’t point at anyone or anything!