To say that this was the highlight of our Korea trip would be a tremendous understatement. It seems frivolous now, though, or even insensitive to even use the word “highlight” with regards to something which has brought thousands of people despair and earth-shattering heartbreak. We came on the tour with trembling expectations and also sheer uncertainty – we were unsure of how to actually feel towards the fragile peace in the Korean Peninsula. We felt a cauldron of feelings and uneasiness, to say the least. Part of us felt guilty for wanting to witness such tension (due to the possibility of an armed conflict) and we also felt a little like voyeurs, looking upon something we had not experienced before. The realisation was not lost on us – that we take intangible things like peace for granted, especially when living in a country like Singapore.
Everyone needs to tell a story, that’s just how we humans make sense of our surroundings, to effectively articulate what confounds us the most. The power of the narrative should not be taken lightly. And the narratives, from both sides, were something to behold. It was heart-wrenching to hear the sadness and frustrations that each expounded. We had studied the Korean conflict back in school many years back and to see it first hand was not only humbling, but also mildly terrifying. The media has successfully painted North Koreans as the “other”, grossly backward and heavily militarised. Even our South Korean guide (he gave himself an English name, “Ken”) described the North Koreans as “short and not really good looking due to malnutrition”.
Such discriminatory remarks are not uncommon throughout the tour. Instead of being enraged, though, we empathised. The scars are too deep, dreams seem out of reach. As mere travellers, we cannot possibly fathom the conflict in its entirety. But it sure was a good place to start.
So, for those of you who want to venture out of Seoul, to do something more than bask in the neon-lights of Myeongdong and Dongdaemun, to be enlightened and educated in some way (or if you just want to say, “Hey, I’ve been to North Korea, ya’ll”), read on for our tips and details on how to go about booking the DMZ tour, truly a once in a lifetime experience.
1. Book a good tour and EARLY!
We normally do not do tours but to visit the DMZ, you need a tour agency to bring you in as the territory has restricted civilian access and it is mandatory that each tour bus has a military escort. There are plenty of tours out there if you search on the Internet but probably the most famous tour agency would be Koridoor Tours. They were our initial choice but unfortunately we attempted book too late. Mind you, this was a month before our scheduled trip.
We researched some more and found another company who does comprehensive tours (we wanted to visit ALL the DMZ spots)- Cosmojin Tours. We were slightly apprehensive about going with Cosmojin because the reviews out there were minimal and we combed through every travel blog for advice and sadly, there were none. Thankfully, we were not disappointed! The tour was very informative and the buses were comfortable – not to mention we had charismatic and humorous South Korean guides who spoke perfect English.
How to book a DMZ Tour:
- Decide when you would like to go (sometimes, there are no tours on Mondays and Tuesdays – better check!)
- Decide on which places you want to visit. Which parts of the whole DMZ you want to see? No tour is the same but all of them offer their own half-day tours or the full-day tours. Our tip? Look for the ones that will bring you to JSA/Panmunjom (the blue building above) because it is only there that you can stand on North Korean soil (you can even take a picture with a ROK solider!). Each tour will cost around USD $80-150. Payment will be on the bus – cash or credit card to your main tour guide.
- E-mail the agency or apply through the website. They would take 24 hours or so to reply and they will need the following information to confirm:
- Full name, address, passport number, nationality
- Scanned passport to be sent by e-mail. They told us they needed to submit our passport details/pictures to the United Nations/US Army at Camp Bonifas so they could approve our entry.
- Confirm pick-up location. They picked us up from our hotel lobby at 730am sharp! Another thing: you cannot be late. The bus has to pick up other passengers from other hotels and they will leave without you if you’re not there at the stipulated time.
Important thing to note:
- When visiting the JSA, you must sign an agreement saying that no one is responsible for you in case of accident, injury or death. Remember, the two Koreas are still in conflict.
- Tours can be cancelled or end unexpectedly at any time should tensions rise at the border. Tour agencies will not be responsible in covering costs and there are no “do-overs.” Our guide was telling us – a few years back, there was a minor misunderstanding between an US Army soldier and a DPRK soldier that resulted in a shoot-out. Emergency sirens rang out and tourists were rushed to a bomb shelter in Camp Bonifas where they were quarantined for two days. Yikes!
2. Pack light & bring your passport
You have to bring your passport because there are numerous check points before the DMZ , hence the US Army and Korean Army soldiers will go on the bus and check your particulars. It can be quite nerve-wracking but just smile and cooperate!
Also, at some parts of the tour (especially at the JSA), you will be asked to leave your bags in the tour bus. Don’t worry, an US Army personnel will be looking after your belongings as you go through the tour. Things you cannot bring in the JSA: big cameras, big wallets, any kind of bags, water bottle. Handphones and passports (and some money) are allowed to be brought in. For the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel Tour, you will be assigned to a tiny locker and you are not allowed to bring in your valuables at all, especially handphones. Get ready for a major leg work-out for that one as you will be hiking underground! Also, as you will see below, we chose a full-day itinerary and there was plenty of footwork, hence it is best if you follow our advice and just pack light. Leave all the other stuff in your hotel room!
Also note: The JSA and Imjingak are the only places in the tour where you can buy souvenirs and memorabilia – magnets, North Korean currency etc. Bring cash!
3. Follow instructions given by officials
Our South Korean tour guide, Ken, was replaced by an US Army soldier the moment we passed the first check point outside of Seoul. The US Army soldier was very strict but was also informative and was not visibly irritated when 30 people in the bus (of all nationalities) bombarded him with questions. He reminded us to only take pictures when given permission to do so. Reason being they do not want us to take pictures of military bases/stronghold and post them on social media. At the JSA, we were warned to not make any sudden movements or talk out loud for the North Korean soldiers who were mere metres away, were watching and anything could be cause for trouble.
Make sure to dress appropriately. Many websites will tell you this and somehow some people will still refuse to abide by the rules. No flip-flops, shorts, short skirts, ripped jeans, sleeveless tops, T-shirts or unkempt hair. A few members of our tour group by reprimanded because they were wearing shorts and were almost stopped from entering some places in the DMZ tour. Apparently, the North Koreans on the other side are always taking pictures of the tourists at the JSA and once, they reported a tourist wearing ripped jeans and immediately concluded that South Korea was too poor to afford proper clothing. Shame!
If you’re lucky, when you visit the JSA, the North Koreans are having their own tours as well! However, again, as per instruction, do not wave or make eye contact.
4. Eat a heavy breakfast
You won’t have a chance to sit at a cafe during the tour, except for lunch. Lunch was provided (and was at an abandoned train terminal/interchange) but it comprised of very simple, unpopular Korean dishes that not many people have a liking to. Make sure you eat a heavy breakfast and drink lots of water!
Below is the itinerary with COSMOJIN TOURS, with a rough list of what you are going to see:
Much love for Cosmojin!
Cosmojin DMZ & JSA Tour
Telephone: +82-2-318-0345 (Korean, English, Japanese), +82-2-318-0425 (Chinese)
Price: 46,000 to 60, 000 won (~$46-60 USD) for half-day tour, 87,000 to 120,000 won (~$87-120 USD) for full day tour. Lunch included on full day tour. Prices may change according to season.
*** Tours offered in Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese.
We hope that you will have an informative and enriching experience exploring the DMZ!