It’s one of the world's most heavily militarized borders, but the 160-mile stretch of land that separates North Korea from South Korea is also a tourist draw welcoming more than a million visitors a year.
This area, known as the Korean demilitarized zone, or DMZ, is a no-man's land about 30 miles north of Seoul. It was created as a buffer in 1953 when the countries agreed to a cease-fire to pause the Korean War.
The DMZ splits the Korean Peninsula in half, separating communist North Korea from capitalist South Korea. It sits along the 38th parallel, the original dividing line that gave the U.S. control of one side and the Soviet Union control of the other in the aftermath of World War II. In 1953, North and South Korea each agreed to move their troops back 1.2 miles to create the DMZ.
Today, visiting the DMZ is one of the best day trips you can make from Seoul. It’s a place to learn about Korean history, the Korean War—which killed more than three million people—and the Koreans whose families have been divided just as the Korean peninsula has. Just don’t try and visit on your own. The DMZ can only be visited on a guided tour.
Be sure to book your tour in advance and try to schedule your tour for early in your visit. The DMZ is known to close on occasion with little or no notice.
How to Get to the DMZ
The only way to visit the DMZ is on a tour. Viator alone lists 18 different tours from which travelers can choose. Tours typically depart from Seoul, with many offering hotel pickups and dropoff service. The area is about an hour or so drive from Seoul. A handful of trains run from Seoul to Dorason Station within the DMZ, however visiting the area’s sites requires a guided tour.
What to Do at the DMZ
The main sights at the DMZ are The Bridge of Freedom, the Bridge of No Return, Dora Observatory, Dorason Station, and the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. Certain tours also visit the Joint Security Area, also referred to as Panmunjom.
The JSA was historically used for diplomatic meetings. It's where prisoners of war were repatriated in 1953 and where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed.
Until last year, the Joint Security Area was a place where armed North Korean and South Korean soldiers literally stood face to face with one another. South Korean guards carried pistols and stood in a modified taekwondo stance, clenching their fists and wearing sunglasses as a means of intimidating their North Korean counterparts.
Within the JSA is the Bridge of No Return, which was used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War. Its name is a reflection of the choice given prisoners of war. They could choose to remain in North Korea or cross the bridge never to return. The bridge was last used for a prisoner exchange in 1968.
Nowadays, the Joint Security Area primarily a tourist attraction and one of the few places where tourists can set foot inside North Korea. The JSA is home to a collection of blue buildings that straddle North and South Korea. Landmines were cleared from the area in 2018, and personnel working there are no longer armed.
If setting foot in North Korea isn’t on your bucket list, you can peek across the border from the Dora Observatory. The camouflage viewpoint is situated on top of a mountain and outfitted with several sets of binoculars through which you can catch a glimpse of North Korea’s propaganda village and the manufacturing city of Kaesong.
Kaesong was meant to be a place where raw materials from the south could be assembled into finished products and re-exported to the south. For about a year, freight trains carried raw materials to Kaesong and returned with finished goods.
Those trains passed Dorason Station, a commuter train station built to one day connect North and South Korean rail systems. Today, a handful of trains from Seoul terminate at Dorason Station.
The 3rd Tunnel was a North Korean effort discovered in 1978. It’s a mile long, 6.5 feet wide and 6.5 feet tall. An estimated 30,000 soldiers could move through the tunnel every hour. Visitors can enter the tunnel either by walking or by a monorail. Exhibits outside the tunnel document Korea’s history of division. If souvenir shopping is on your agenda, you’ll find options here.
Tips for Visiting the DMZ
- Don’t dress like a slob, especially if you’re taking a USO-organized tour of the area. Bare midriffs, sleeveless tops, open-toed shoes, and ripped jeans aren’t allowed. Remember, a poorly dressed tourist could find themselves becoming North Korean propaganda.
- Visiting the DMZ during your trip to South Korea is a must-do, but don't forget to book your tour in advance.
- Don’t forget your passport. You’ll need it to access key sights.