The Joint Security Area (JSA) at the DMZ, South Korea
The world was shocked this week when an American Soldier ran through the demilitarized zone (DMZ) border into North Korea. Travis King, a soldier who was stationed in South Korea but serving a prison sentence due to assault, escaped his escort back to America and joined a tour bound for the Joint Security Area (JSA). From there he crossed the border and is now in the custody of the North Korean government. His fate is unknown and people are left with many questions about visiting the DMZ and what exactly happens at the border separating the two Koreas.
The DMZ is a must-visit for any traveler to South Korea seeking to learn about the history of North and South Korea. Visitors can explore historical sights, learn about the turmoil before, during, and after the Korean War, and even visit places of past conflict. However, as both a military zone and a location next to the world’s most isolated country, there are some key things you should know before embarking on a DMZ tour.
What to Expect on a Tour of the DMZ
Perhaps the most surprising thing about visiting the DMZ is that, because of the Covid lockdown in the North, there are no North Korean soldiers actually standing guard right now. And since the South Koreans cannot cross the border, the renegade American soldier could not be chased. In fact, for anyone willing to risk getting shot by a North Korean soldier, it is fairly easy to break the law and breach the border. Until now, no one seemed to want to defect to North Korea so security was fairly loose for visitors.
Although you probably won’t get to see any North Korean soldiers, official tours of the DMZ are fairly easy to schedule. You cannot go to the DMZ on your own but there are many different tours to choose from. During the tour, you will stop at several places: Imjingak Park, the Freedom Bridge, the Dora Observatory, Infiltration Tunnel, the Unification Village, and the JSA.
The first stop is Imjingak Park. Here you can stop to eat and experience some of the history of the DMZ, including some incredible artwork and meaningful monuments. Your group will learn about how Korea was divided and the significance of many statues and monuments, representing, among other things, the desire for reunification, the suffering of victims, and the unique Han emotion, which has no direct translation in English but conveys combined feelings of sadness, grief, and anger.
The Freedom Bridge, where 12,773 prisoners of war were returned to South Korea, is particularly touching, symbolizing the return to freedom that many wish for their families in North Korea. You’ll also find numerous inscriptions made by South Koreans, expressing their hopes to reunite with their family members in North Korea.
After passing through the checkpoint where your ID is inspected, you’ll reach the Dora Observatory. There, you can use telescopes to look over the border, catching a glimpse of the North Korean flag atop the fourth tallest flagpole in the world, erected in competition against South Korea. You may also see several villages along the border, though visibility can be affected by haze.
Next, you’ll visit the 3rd infiltration tunnel, one of four tunnels secretly made by North Koreans to invade South Korea. A small video will retell the story of the DMZ and the 3rd infiltration tunnel before you put on helmets and descend into the tunnel. It’s important to note that this part of the tour might not be suitable for those with respiratory or heart issues or claustrophobia due to its cramped interior and long climb up and down.
Lastly, you’ll stop at the Unification Village, where you can appreciate the high-quality products the small region is known for, such as their 6-year-old ginseng, soybeans, and rice. These products benefit from the DMZ’s regulation of pollution and chemicals. You can buy products here as snacks or gifts.
Usually, the tour also includes the most exciting moment, the JSA, aka Panmunjom, where you can see North Korean and South Korean soldiers on the border. However, during my visit this week, the Travis King incident was still being investigated and this portion of the tour was canceled.
The news of Mr. King’s inexplicable defection to North Korea has understandably drawn heightened attention to the DMZ. Thus, I believe a review of some do’s and don’ts for a visit to the DMZ may be helpful to those planning a trip to South Korea.
Tips on Visiting the DMZ
#1: Do book your tour ahead of time.
When I visited my aunt in the Paju area, near the DMZ, I thought I might be able to stop by for a quick tour. I was wrong. DMZ tours typically span from half a day to a full day, not including the possibility of a very long wait for tickets. Also, you are not allowed to enter without being accompanied by an authorized guide or a group led by a guide. Additionally, for security reasons, this tour must be booked several days in advance, and if you want the full tour with the Panmunjom visit, you may have to book even earlier.
#2: Do bring everything you need.
You will need a few things on your tour. First, you absolutely must bring your passport. It is needed for the security checkpoint your tour bus will go through both as you enter the DMZ and when exiting. At the checkpoint, South Korean soldiers inspect everyone’s passport against a list of names provided by the guide. If you don’t have your passport, the entire bus will have to go back. Second, especially during summer and the long climb up from the 3rd infiltration tunnel, you’ll want to make sure you have water, which is sold in a few places at the DMZ. You should also bring any necessary medication for the day.
My tour was on July 20, 2023, one of the most scorching days, and there was a lot of time spent out in the sun during the tour. So be sure to bring a hat and wear sunscreen (or carry an umbrella) as there are several outdoor monuments to view, especially in Imjingak, the first stop of the DMZ tour.
#3: Do pay attention to the rules.
Whether it is verbally from your guide or set forth in a sign, you absolutely must comply with the rules. Following the rules at the DMZ is extremely important because it is a military zone, and they are in place for both your safety, the safety of others on your tour, and national security. This includes adhering to photography restrictions. For instance, the 3rd infiltration tunnel has a complete ban on photography, and the Joint Security Area has very strict rules regarding photography.
#4: Do feel free to purchase some souvenirs.
During the tour, you will come across a couple of shops selling DMZ merchandise, goods produced in nearby villages, and memorabilia like barbed wire or North Korean money. All of these shops are permitted by the government to sell at the DMZ, so don’t worry about getting any illegal or stolen merchandise. The last stop on our tour was in the Unification Village, an area known for its 6-year ginseng, soybean products, and rice. I purchased black soybean chocolate for its purported hair-retaining effects and ginseng tea for my grandma.
#5: Do enjoy the experience and learn about the DMZ.
While the DMZ is certainly a stark contrast from the rest of your happy trip to South Korea, it is an important side of Korea that must be shown. Take the time to absorb the emotions and the suffering that the DMZ represents, but also the hope for a reunification of the Korean peninsula.
The guide provided an engaging explanation of the significance of the DMZ, the many historical sites and monuments. Personally, my grandfather was born in northern Korea and escaped in 1946 during the communist redistribution, so I had been interested and previously studied the events leading up to the Korean War. But I came out of the experience having learned so much more about the history and future of Korea.
Tips on What Not to Do When Visiting the DMZ
#1: Don’t act disrespectfully.
Remember, you are within both a site of immense history and pain, but also a military zone right next to North Korea. Acting rowdy at the DMZ is frowned upon and dangerous in areas like the Panmunjom. I would also advise against taking selfies in front of certain monuments, such as the Comfort Women Statues, which represent the young girls who were made sex slaves by the Japanese during World War II.
#2: Don’t break the dress code.
While most of the DMZ does not have a strict dress code, the Joint Security Area does. This is for a few reasons. One is for simple respect. Another is for propaganda purposes, as North Korean soldiers have been known to take pictures of foreigners with fashionably ripped and skin-showing clothes, portraying the outside world as poor and lacking proper clothing. So, avoid ripped jeans, revealing clothing, flip flops, and surprisingly even workout clothes. Additionally, camouflage or any clothing that may identify you as anything other than a civilian tourist is also banned.
#3: Don’t lose track of time and miss the meeting times.
Each tour will have several stops along the way, giving you time to eat, explore, and roam around the designated areas. There is also a bus departure time, typically around thirty to forty minutes after you get off the bus, depending on the location. Make sure to be mindful of the time and return before the bus is set to leave. The bus will not leave you behind, but it’s quite inconsiderate and throws off the schedule if you are late. My mother got very immersed in the art in Imjingak Park and ended up being a few minutes late for the departure time, which was quite embarrassing. However, she was able to take some photos of the incredible art.
#4: Don’t bring small children to the JSA.
While people of all ages are allowed to go to most of the DMZ, in the JSA, you are not allowed to bring children below the age of 11. This is due to the sensitivity of the area and young children’s decreased ability to strictly follow instructions. This is of immense importance because any interaction, from waving, gesturing, or talking to North Korean soldiers, is strictly forbidden. However, your children may enjoy the rest of the DMZ if you book a tour that does not include the JSA.
#5: Don’t cross the border!!
Most of us will not be doing what Travis King did, but be careful not to wander away from the group. In 2016, the Korea Times reported that 1 million mines were hidden throughout the DMZ during the Korean War. The DMZ is safe for tourism, but since the effort to remove the mines is still ongoing, this is one place where it is critical that you not wander off on your own to explore anything other than the designated areas. And, it goes without saying, don’t cross the border, intentionally or unintentionally!