Half-day trip via Viator
Since the JSA was closed for much of February, I opted for a shorter half-day tour conducted by Seoul City Tours available on the Viator website. The DMZ Past and Present tour includes a pickup from the hotel, and a visit to various sites: Imjingak Park, the Freedom Bridge, the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and Dorasan Station. The largest tour that I’ve ever been on, they did their best to cater to the day’s 47 guests. All tours are at the whim of the guide and our guide, Michelle, was a friendly, English-capable, experienced woman who had been on the tour more than 600 times. While her story presentation was a bit rushed, what was admirable about her was her ability to roll with the punches and her genuine desire to make sure we had a full tour. When we found out Dora Observatory was closed, she quickly rerouted us to Odusan Unification Observatory instead and this turned out to be the highlight of the trip (though many would argue that the damp 3rd Infiltration Tunnel built by North Korea is equally fascinating). Just 2km from North Korea, one can peer through binoculars and observe North Korea’s front just across the Imjin River. There’s so still much to be discovered about North Korea and for a 6.5 hr. preview under US$46, this seems like good bang for your buck. Our tips on getting the most of the experience? Read a little in advance and be sure to ask a lot of questions. Wear comfy shoes and prepare snacks and coffee for the ride (or beware 6.5 hrs. of hunger pangs). Tours are also available in Chinese.
Off the beaten track: DMZ tour with Korail
Korail is now offering trains that go from Seoul Station to Dorasan Station (the closest station to the 38th parallel) twice a day. From aboard the train, you can admire the untouched scenery bordering the North. And once there, you’re given the option of staying at Dorasan Station for a few hours (visiting the 3rd Tunnel and the Dora Observatory) and the option to stay at Imjingang (and check out the Imjingang Resort) for an hour or so.
“The psychedelic train is decorated like the set of a children's TV show, but they serve beer and allow drinking on board, unlike the tour buses. There is a pictorial timeline of Korean railroad history on the walls and other exhibits throughout the train. The staff took requests for people's favorite K-pop songs and put pictures of the passengers up on the HDTVs in every car. They also held a scavenger hunt for children using the exhibits and photos. Out the window, endless apartment megatowers stood in stark contrast to the North Korean hamlets we had earlier squinted at through a telescope. It's really hard for Koreans to get permission to enter the JSA—so it was clear that this one was specialized for domestic tourism. They don't really have the means to capture that market from specialized tour operators. Overall, returning by train was faster and well worth the money, but you might have to look into other tours to see the JSA.” – Luke Fitch
The popular option: USO tour via Koridoor
Going with the USO (United Service Organizations) is by far one of the most popular and well-reputed methods to see the DMZ. There is no pickup for many of their tours but guides with the USO are well noted for their ability to detail stories in an interesting light. (koridoor.co.kr). Full-day DMZ/JSA and 3rd Tunnel Tour, 96,000 won.
“Visiting the DMZ will always be the daytrip de rigueur for visiting foreigners in Korea, and I’ve done it a few times. The typical tour will show you an underground tunnel dug for an invasion of the South that never happened, a view of North Korea and Imjingak Park. It’s fun, but it can feel like a field trip. The USO tour through Koridoor invites a stronger sense of excitement (and uneasiness) by taking you to more restricted areas. You’re debriefed at a military post, clip a UN badge to your shirt and can see North Korean guards peering at you through binoculars at the Joint Security Area (JSA). While it may be corny to get your picture taken standing on the North Korean side of the UN negotiation table, let yourself go— everybody does it.” – Will Arndt
Comments on a tour to North Korea
For non-South Korean passport holders, it is possible (though, perhaps not advisable) to tour North Korea. There are various tour companies, such as Koryo Tours or Uri Tours, that can take you en route from Beijing to parts of North Korea. Professor Steve Schuit of Yeungnam University shares with us one of his observations from a 10-day tour seeing the southern half of North Korea with Koryo Tours. “The one thing I think that struck me most during my visit to North Korea was the number of things that were broken—things that simply did not work. These ranged from elevators to bathroom fixtures, even toilets. The power went out fairly regularly in the capital city. While staying at a famous hotel for tourists, my room lacked a toilet seat, a working shower and hot water. A factory we visited looked very much like a Russian factory from 1955, with broken controls and a false computer room made to look like it was actually running the factory. The computers, in fact, were not working.”