As glaringly strange as North Korea is, it’s rapidly gaining attention from the curious tourist eye. Our intrigue to see it was piqued earlier this year during a visit to Seoul. Having now taken the DMZ tour ourselves, this highly informative if not haunting experience is one we would highly recommend. So, if you’ve got guts and a desire to get a snippet into one of the most closed countries on earth, here’s how to do it!

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South Korean soldiers march alongside the the Freedom Bridge connecting North Korea opposite the Han river


Step 1. Choose your points of interest

There are several companies that operate DMZ tours. As much as I despise group tours, you can only visit the DMZ with a tour, as it has restricted civilian access and requires a mandatory military escort.

No two tours are the same, but you should choose one based on your budget, customer reviews, and points of interest that are included. The main highlights to select from are as follows:

The Joint Security Area (JSA)

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The JSA area – opposite the South Korean soldiers pictured here is North Korea

Located in Panmunjom, the JSA is the closest point a tourist can get to North Korea. At this spot, you’ll have a chance to physically stand in North Korea itself and take a photo as proof (more on that below). This area is occupied by the South Korean and US military, and is complete with a gift shop selling original items from North Korea, including stamps, money, and wine (which in our experience tastes like nail polish remover and turpentine but hey, at least you can say you tried it).


Odusan Unification Observatory

One can safely view day-to-day life in North Korea without setting foot in the country at Mt Odu Observatory. Binoculars (free of charge) provide ultra zoomed up views of North Korea opposite the Han river below. On our visit we were able to see civilians walking around on the other side.

Infiltration Tunnels

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Map of infiltration tunnels (Photo KoreaDMZ tour)

PMJ tunnel photo

Inside the 4th infiltration tunnel (Photo Credit PTC)

Scarily enough, around the time that the North and South were having peace talks, North Korea began digging underground tunnels to infiltrate the South. They were never completed, but were discovered in 1984. The longest tunnel is 1,082 metres. The 3rd tunnel is the closest to Seoul (only 44km away) and could move ~30,000 troops and artillery per hour.


Dora Observatory

This observatory offers binocular views of North Korea’s fake town, Kijong-dong. The town was first built in the 1950’s to lure South Koreans to defect and move across the border. From visual observations from the South, it has been uninhabited with windowless, incomplete buildings since its construction.

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Binocular views of North Korea (much brighter with the naked eye).

 

Odu observatory North Korea

Dora Observatory is so named after Dorasan the mountain on which it sits. The nearest train station has a fully completed train line that runs to Pyongyang. Though the North cooperated in its completion, it was never used. It is hoped that when re-unification is reached, the train line will be used to connect the two Koreas.

Freedom Bridge

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The Freedom Bridge – on the opposite side of the river lies North Korea. To the left corner (not pictured) is a barricade to the bridge.

The Freedom Bridge connects North and South Korea, though a massive barricade blocks entry to the connecting point over the river. If the two sides are ever connected, this bridge could be used to enter and exit North Korea.

Step 2. Select a tour

Once you’ve decided on your must-see highlights (as listed above), you can select a tour. There are several companies to choose from, which are listed at the end of this article along with prices and contact information. However, booking with many tour companies require back and forth e-mails and phone calls, so the easiest way to book tickets online and have immediate confirmation is to book on GetYourGuide or Viator.

We took the Special Panmunjom Tour by Panmunjeom Travel Center which does not visit the tunnels but goes to Odu Observatory and the JSA. It is the only tour that provides the chance to speak with a North Korean refugee and freely ask them questions. This allowed us to learn about how people escape the North, how they adapt to life afterwards, and what knowledge they have of the outside world living in North Korea. You can read our Q&A with a North Korean refugee here.

Step 3. Take (lots of) photos of North Korea

Much of the road towards the JSA border runs parallel to the Han River, which separates the two countries. It’s nothing short of unique to be sitting in a bus with views of North Korea passing by out your window.

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Views of North Korea from the tour bus en route back to Seoul

The binoculars at the Dora and Odu observatory provide ultra zoomed views of North Korea. One can even see North Korean civilians walking around on the other side, as we did during our visit at Odu (pictured earlier). At Dora Observatory, North Korea’s fake town, Kijong-dong, is viewed.

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The landscapes of North Korea across the Han River (view from Odu Observatory)

Step 4. Cross the border into North Korea

On a tension-free day at the JSA, one can legally take a step into North Korea. But how and why?

The blue buildings pictured below are UN Command neutral zones. Midway, the inside of these blue buildings cross the North/South Korea border. Inside the building on the right (UNCMAC) is where meetings between the two countries are housed.

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South Korean & a US soldier standing guard

If you want photo evidence that you physically stood in North Korea, this can be done. You can pose with a South Korean soldier within North Korea at the back of the UNCMAC room. Be warned though (and you will be), if you cross through the door behind you, no one is responsible for your safety as you’ll be alone and in North Korea.

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A South Korean guard standing in what is technically North Korea in the UNCMAC building

Important Points About DMZ Tours

  • Many tours require reservation 2-5 days in advance, so check ahead.
  • If visiting the JSA, you must sign a waiver agreeing that no one is responsible for accident, injury, or even death. Take comfort in the fact that these tours are done every day and you are accompanied by military escorts at the border!
  • You must bring your passport for most tours, and it is checked by army personnel on arrival at the JSA.
  • You must adhere to the specified dress code (e.g. no ripped jeans, sandals, or unkempt hair). These rules are strictly enforced as North Korean soldiers take photos and produce false propaganda that other countries are too poor to afford proper clothing.
  • Tours can end unexpectedly at any time if tensions rise at the border. That means you are not be guaranteed to step into the UNCMAC at the JSA, nor is it certain you’ll get a photo across the border.

In Summary…

Partaking in the DMZ tour allows yourself to gain much more depth on a humanitarian crisis that the world does not know enough about. If you have the chance to do this trip, I’d highly recommend it. Not to mention, you earn yourself bragging rights for being able to say you’ve stepped into North Korea!

Curious to learn more? Why not read our Q&A with a North Korean defector, or learn about our own experience crossing the North Korean border at the DMZ.

Pre-book Tours Online

Tours can be booked in advance from a variety of tour companies online with GetYourGuide and Viator. You pay in advance and get fast confirmation, so all you need to do is bring your voucher to the tour. There are reviews, photos, and videos that make choosing the right tour simple. Many DMZ tours require back and forth e-mail or phone communication when booking direct, so GetYourGuide and Viator are convenient ways to avoid all that hassle.

Here are some of the top-rated tours that can be booked online:

Tour Companies & Pricing

Alternatively, you can contact one of the tour companies below directly and book with them.

Panmunjeom Travel Center
Website: www.panmunjomtour.com
Telephone: +82-2-771-5593 (Korean, English, Japanese)
Price: 60,000-77,000 won (~$60-$77 USD). All tours include lunch.
Note: Tours offered in Korean, English, and Japanese. This is the only company that allows you to meet a North Korean defector/refugee, ask them questions, and better understand the human rights issues of North Korea.

VIP Travel
Website: http://www.vviptravel.com/eng/
Telephone: 02-739-3501 ext. 4
Price: 55,000-135,000 won ($48 – $120 USD). Most tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours offered in English, Japanese, Chinese. None of the tours include any forced shopping stops.

Koridoor
Websitewww.koridoor.co.kr
Telephone: 02-6383-2570 ext. 2
Price: 43-89,000 won (~$41-$80 USD). Most tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours offered in English.

JSA Tour
Website: www.jsatour.com
Telephone: +82-2-2266-3350
Price: 85,000-120,000 won (~$85-$120 USD). All tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.

DMZ Spy Tour
Website:
www.dmzspytour.com
Telephone: +82-10-3950-8350
Price: 88,000-114,000 won (~$88-$114 USD). Tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.

 

International Culture Service Club
Website: www.tourdmz.com
Telephone: +82-2-755-0073
Price: 65,000-85,000 won (~$65-$85 USD). All tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English and Japanese. This is the only company that does Saturday tours.

Seoul City Tour
Website: www.seoulcitytour.net
Telephone: +82-2-774-3345
Price: 40,000-125,000 won (~$40-$125 USD). Only some tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours are offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.

KTB Tour
Website: www.go2korea.co.kr
Telephone: +82-2-778-0150
Price: 65,000-130,000 won (~$65-$130 USD). All tours include lunch.
Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.

DMZ & JSA Tour (Professional Guide Service / Celebrity’s choice Agency)
Website: www.cosmojin.com
Telephone: +82-2-318-0345 (Korean, English, Japanese), +82-2-318-0425 (Chinese)
Price: 46,000 won (~$46 USD) for half-day tour, 87,000 won (~$87 USD) for full day tour. Lunch included on full day tour.
Notes: Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese.