Planning a vacation to North Korea? Yeah, I didn’t think so. But if you are visiting very-vacation-destination-worthy South Korea, you will have a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into both North Korea and its tense relations with their southern neighbor. When visiting South Korea, one of the most fascinating things you can do is take a day trip outside of Seoul to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA), where North and South Korea meet to discuss all matters (including peace talks). This area is heavily guarded by military from both North and South Korea, and, for whatever reason, they´ve agreed to let curious foreigners visit on highly-regulated tours from Seoul.
Here’s what you’ll find in this comprehensive guide on how to visit the DMZ and JSA from Seoul:
Why Visit the DMZ and JSA
- You will learn an important part of 20th century world history which continues to have significant global impacts on international affairs today.
- For many visitors, this is as close as you may ever get to North Korea unless things change dramatically.
- It’s safer than you think.
- It’s unlike any other “tourism” experience on earth.
How to Book Your Visit to the DMZ and JSA
In order to visit the Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area, you must book with a package day tour departing from Seoul. This must be booked several days in advance, and you must send the tour company a photo of your passport photo page in order for them to gain clearance for you to visit the DMZ and JSA.
We went with a combined DMZ and JSA tour, which we booked using Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Otherwise, it´s $144 per person. This price is fairly standard for the combined DMZ and JSA tour.
Be aware when you book your tour that not all of them include a visit to the JSA! Some are DMZ-only tours. These are substantially cheaper, but you´ll miss the opportunity to step into North Korea and visit the conference room where talks are held between the two countries. Make sure you double check before booking whether your tour includes a visit to both the DMZ and JSA.
Preparing for Your Visit
IMPORTANT! You must have your passport on the day of the tour.
When visiting the JSA, you cannot carry anything off the bus – bags must be left behind. You can carry a camera or phone in your pocket.
Tim and I visited in January, when it is extremely cold. If visiting in winter, wear layers and prepare for harsh conditions. If visiting in summer, prepare for exactly the opposite – hot and humid conditions. Be mindful of the dress code regardless of the season. When in doubt, wear long pants, clean shoes, and a long sleeve shirt (or carry a sweater or jacket you can put over a sleeveless shirt).
What to Expect on Your Tour
You´ll meet at the location designated by your tour operator. For us, this was at Yongsan Station in Seoul. If you are staying in a hotel in Seoul, they will pick you up there.
- The tour operator will drive you to the Demilitarized Zone starting point. Here you will see the Peace Bell and an amusement park (which is quite odd at the most heavily militarized area on earth).
- You will then go to three places at the DMZ:
- Dorasan Station, which used to have a train operating between north and south, but now only operates in one direction.
- The Third Infiltration Tunnel, which North Korean troops made using dynamite in the 1970s in order to enter South Korea in a coordinated attack from under ground. You will get to go into this tunnel.
- The Dora Observation Deck, where, from a distance, you will be able to see cities and towns, including the fake “propaganda village” of North Korea.
- After these sights, you will have lunch which will most likely be included in your tour.
- After lunch, you will visit the Joint Security Area, where you will be escorted by a member of the United States Military into an auditorium where you must sign a statement acknowledging you are going into a hostile territory where death or injury can result directly from enemy action. Following a briefing, you will proceed in military formation to the JSA. You must follow military commands at all times, as you will be under constant watch from North Korean soldiers from watch towers and windows. You will go into a conference room used for talks between the two sides and you will have the opportunity to stand in North Korea. Do not touch anything or say anything that could get you in trouble, as the room has microphones that are monitored 24/7 by North Korea. The US soldier will speak about this room. You will be allowed to take photos. Note you will be asked to show your passport numerous times during this portion of the tour.
- After visiting the JSA you will transfer via bus (provided by tour operator) back to Seoul. Our operator dropped us off at the Seoul City Hall metro station and we took the subway to our apartment from there.
Is Visiting the DMZ and JSA Right for You?
Visiting the DMZ and JSA means you are visiting one of the most hostile areas on earth. There is heavy military presence from the United States of America, South Korea and North Korea. The Korean War is still ongoing (they are merely in an armistice), and North Korea has violated the terms of the armistice numerous times. A breach of this armistice could occur at any time and you could be hurt or killed if this takes place during your visit. Visiting this area is not for the faint of heart. Additionally, I would not recommend it for children or anyone who has a hard time following instructions. It’s also worth noting that tours can be cancelled at any time at the discretion of the military.
Additional Tips for Visiting the DMZ and JSA
- Check out my comprehensive one week itinerary for Seoul.
- Hear me and other experts discuss what it’s like to travel to South Korea in the World Nomad’s podcast!
Have you visited the DMZ or JSA already? What additional advice would you give to those planning a trip? I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a note in the comments, or feel free to contact me!