I first visited the Demilitarized Zone from North Korea in 2008. The DMZ is a stretch of land 250 km (155 miles) long and 4 km (2.48 miles) wide that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea.
I went there five times before being banned by the North Korean regime. I visited the DMZ on the South Korean side twice in 2016 and 2017. The both sides have huge differences but not in the way you may expect sometimes.
The two Koreas have signed an armistice but are technically not at peace since the Korean War began in 1950. The Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjom is called a “demilitarized zone,” but in fact it is the most armed zone in the world and also a major tourist attraction both in North and South with more than 100,000 tourists visiting every year.
In North Korea, reaching the DMZ is possible from Kaesong. All along the highway near the South Korean border, you can see those huge cement blocks. They can be used to block the highway in case of an American invasion.
In South Korea, the highway has nothing special.
On both sides, a soldier enters the tourists bus to reach the JSA. In South Korea, pictures on the way are totally forbidden. In North Korea, you are free to take pictures, even the soldier’s helmet resting on embroideries.
Before visiting the DMZ from Seoul, the tour company warns you that the following items are strictly forbidden:
“Shorts, mini skirts, flashy clothes, work clothes, body T-shirt without a collar, sleeveless, jeans clothing and leather (okay so long as there is no tear or discoloration), dresses, sandals (if there is a strap of the heel it is acceptable), slippers that have not been fixed heel shoes, military uniform style, leather straps, slippers and rubber slippers.”
Tattoos are also to be covered. It seems this is all meant to prevent the North Koreans from photographing the Western visitors and showing how “degenerate” they are to their citizens!
Again, once in the American Bonifas camp near the DMZ, you are obliged to sign a paper (picture) if you want to visit. It tells what you may not do (e.g. fraternization with the North Korean soldiers) and what you must not bring with you (e.g. weapons and alcohol).
In North Korea, nothing is asked.
Once in the area of the border, in the North and in the South, you watch a presentation about the DMZ history. In North Korea, they bring you in a kind of museum while in the South you enjoy a PowerPoint presentation by an American soldier in a large and comfortable auditorium.
But the both sides have their different versions of history. For example, North Korea displays pictures of the famous “axe murder incident” that took place in 1976 where two U.S. soldiers were killed by North Korean soldiers.
North Korea says the Americans violated their territory. In the South, they explain the North had attacked them with axes without any good reason.
Both sides display a scale model of the DMZ in the Joint Security Area. The North Korean mock-up shows a very simple view of the border that seems to have been made in the 70s. Lots of details are missing like the main South Korean building which is not even on the mock-up!
The South Korean model is the exact copy of the reality and is clearly updated.
In North Korea, a colonel who does not speak English will guide the tourists during the visit. Pictures are allowed at any time, not like in South Korea where you need to follow a strict photography protocol and even sometimes leave your camera in the bus.
At the DMZ in the North, you can see those huge billboards which claim that “Korea is One” to promote reunification.
In the South, there is no such reunification billboard, just warning signs about the CCTV system that monitors visitors.
In Panmunjom, the soldiers from the two countries must remain completely still when they face the other side in the Joint Security Area (JSA).
This attitude may seem very painful, but it is only for when tourists visit! When there are no visitors, they go back to their main building, and the place is empty.
My North Korean guide told me to notice the way South Korean guards face North Korea: one was half hidden behind the blue barracks, to make himself smaller target.
“He fears our soldiers,” my guide added.
When North Korean soldiers wear a helmet at the DMZ, it means they are on high military alert. It is also a psychological sign to impress the South Koreans.
South Korean soldiers always wear a helmet. The North Korean uniforms look like they are from the 1950s for one reason — when the Korean People’s Army was created in 1948 in the Soviet occupation zone of Korea, the uniforms were copied form the USSR.
The visitors on the North Korean side enter the blue houses of the United Nations. Tourists line up without any discipline.
On the South Korean side, you need to make a perfect line, like in a military exercise!
South Korean citizens who live in SK can visit the place, but are not be able to join the tour with foreigners due to local laws.
During my five trips on the DMZ in North Korea, I never saw any North Korean visitors on the field.
The visits from the North and from the South never take place at the same time inside the Joint Security Area blue houses.
Also, you’ll never see soldiers from both sides inside at the same time, so both sides need to coordinate when they enter the blue houses on the border. Usually they use a special phone line.
Once inside, the huge wooden desk is set exactly on the Military Demarcation Line. You can technically go in North Korea from the South or in South Korea from the North in one small step!
A South Korean soldier inside the negotiation blue house stood still like a wax statue. He even seemed not to breathe!
They always wear sunglasses to avoid any eye contact with the North Korean soldiers. The JSA battalion mostly recruits volunteers, and in South Korea military service lasts 22 months. In North Korea, there is no limit.
The American soldier who was leading the tour stopped in front of the soldier and said, “Please do not touch him, he is human, he is a not a dummy.”
Lot of laughs from the visitors, but a strange feeling toward this soldier who was just taking his task seriously.
The American soldier told me he chose to serve there, and had only a small bonus, far from the huge salaries soldiers can receive in Afghanistan or Iraq.
During the visit from the North Korean side, two North koreans soldiers are standing in front of the gateway to South Korea, to prevent visitors from escaping!
I asked a North Korean colonel on the DMZ:
“What happens if a South Korean crosses the border at the DMZ and comes to the North?”
“We welcome him.”
“And if a North Korean goes to the South?”
“They shoot him.”
Very few North Korean soldiers escape the south in the DMZ, the last one was in September 2016.
On the DMZ, the North Korean soldiers who monitor the border must keep their fists closed, ready to fight like a boxer, my guide told me.
On the South side, the soldiers have two ways to stand: fists closed like the North Korean when they are in front of them, or they stand in a Taekwondo position to look intimidating, or hands on their belt, in a more relaxing way when there are no North Korean soldiers on the opposite camp.
In North Korea, you won’t have any problems if you wish to take selfies or photo souvenirs with the North Korean soldiers who guide you. It seems it is part of the tour as they always pose without any problem and with a lot of patience. Many times, the soldiers on the DMZ looked more like public relations than army members.
In South Korea, the American and South Korean soldiers typically won’t allow you to take pictures, but they do it for themselves as you can see in the back!
On the North Korean side, soldiers like to pose for the tourists. This one asked for a cigarette after this picture. On the South Korean side, forget it.
In South Korea side, you can pose in front of a giant picture of the DMZ, wear a plastic helmet and an uniform for free, and have a great photo souvenir.
On the North Korean side, nothing is made for tourist souvenirs, but posing under the portraits of the Dear Leaders is a must on the DMZ.
As stated before, the two Koreas have signed an armistice but are not at peace. North Korea likes to show the document and say that they want peace and reunification.
South Korea cannot act freely as they are the puppets of USA, they add.
In North Korea they have a special section the tourists can visit called “The Wall.”
According to North Korea, between 1977 and 1979, South Korean and the USA built a concrete wall along the DMZ. North Korea began to propagate this news after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, for the symbol.
The United States and South Korea still deny the wall’s existence. The U.S. soldier during my visit said there is no wall, it is just propaganda.
The wall would stretch more than 240 km from east to west, and is 5–8 m high according to this North Korean colonel. They just show drawings, not pictures.
What you can see from North Korea, a glimpse of South Korea.
Visitors in the South Korean side can enjoy the view of the Imjingang Bridge going over the river. It is a former railroad bridge which was used by repatriated prisoners of war returning from North Korea.
On the top picture, you can see what kind of products you can find in the souvenir shop near the DMZ area: ginseng roots.
On the South Korean side, DMZ t-shirt and caps are a great success with the tourists.
The DMZ brand is even used to sell some soybean chocolate in the South Korean DMZ shop!
In North Korea, it is forbidden to go close to the barb wires along the border.
In South Korea, people come to put some South Korean flags and messages of peace on them.
As there hasn’t been any human activity within the DMZ since 1953, there now exists a strip of land that serves as a natural and protected area for many species of plants and animals.
This North Korean colonel shows South Korea with his hand.
My American soldier guide stressed that I shouldn’t point or make sudden moves in the direction of North Korea, for my own safety he said. This gesture is forbidden on the DMZ, as it may be seen as an aggressive one by the North Korean soldiers who can shoot at any time.
In the 1980s, the South Korean government built a 320 foot-tall flagpole in the DMZ area. North Korea responded quickly with a 525 foot-tall flagpole. It was at the time the tallest in the world.
Just after the giant North Korean flag stands the “Propaganda Village”: Kijong-dong looks just like an ordinary village except no one seems to actually be living there.
On the North Korean side, they say some people really live there and are heroes as they need to endure the giant American loudspeakers which broadcast K-pop songs!
One attraction on the DMZ can only be visited from the South side: the tunnel North Korea dug to invade South Korea. North Korea initially denied they built the tunnel then claimed the tunnel was for coal mining.
The 3rd Tunnel of Aggression reaches the closest to Seoul: 44 kilometers away and had the capacity to move some 30,000 North Korean troops per hour.
In North Korea, a road sign says that Seoul is just 70 km (43 miles) away from the DMZ.
Another billboard on the South Korean DMZ:
The Reunification Train Station in North Korea is brand new but is not used.
The Dorasan train station in South Korea used to be connected to North Korea. The only way to enter North Korea by train now is through China.
One day, if Reunification happens, the train in this station will take you to Pyongyang in the North.