What is the North Korean DMZ?
The DMZ is a strip of land 4km wide running 250km across the middle of the Korean peninsula. It was established after the armistice agreement in 1953 to create a buffer zone between North and South Korea.
The village of Panmunjon & the Joint Security Area (JSA) serve as the meeting point when the two Koreas enter into discussions.
This place is instantly recognisable with its rows of blue huts that straddle the demarcation line between the two countries.
The 4km buffer zone is demilitarized, however the areas outside of this line are amongst the most militarized areas in the world.
A brief History
After the Second World War, the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th Parallel North. The line became the de facto border after the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and The Republic of Korea in the south.
After the end of the Korean War in 1953, the military Demarcation Line and DMZ buffer was placed at the front line roughly in the centre of the peninsula.
Although highly impenetrable, numerous incursions have take place in its lifetime resulting in the deaths of hundreds of security personnel on both sides.
Visiting the Korean DMZ
Visiting the DMZ is most commonly done via day tours from Seoul, South Korea. These tend to by quite strict affairs where participants must sign waivers and dress appropriately. Photography is also limited and tours are usually led by an American GI.
Tours from the Northern side are a different deal altogether.
The DMZ day tour
It’s an early start as your tour guide gives you a wake up call at 6am. From Pyongyang it’s a 3.5 hour drive to the DMZ. The early start is key to avoiding the Chinese tour groups and thus a mega bottle neck on entry to the Joint Security Area.
If you think you can take a nap then think again, The road isn’t the smoothest and the guides commonly call it “Korean surfing”.
The first stop of the day is halfway through at the “teahouse” It’s a quick toilet stop and a chance to grab an instant coffee
Sit back again and try to relax as the journey takes you through lush farmland and North Korean towns. It’s a wonderful insight into North Korean life outside the capital city.
On entry to the northern line of the DMZ the bus is inspected and the passengers disembark.
Thankfully there’s a very convenient gift shop adjacent for you to mingle in. This is the best place in North Korea to purchase some propaganda posters as souvenirs. The hand-printed items will set you back about €40 each.
Next up it’s back on the bus and off to the Armistice Signing Hall. This is effectively where the North Korean side and UN/US side signed an armistice which ended hostilities on 27th July 1953. As no peace treaty was signed, technically the sides are still at war today.
The Blue Huts
Next up is the famous Joint Security area where both sides face off on a daily basis.
Once described by Bill Clinton as the “scariest place on earth”, the three central blue huts are managed by the UN side while the silver huts are managed by the North. Both sides have access to the central hut and this was the location for several high level talks between the sides.
After visiting the Joint Security Area your tour will move onto the “Korean Wall section”.
North Korea has claimed that the south built a concrete wall across the DMZ sometime between 1977 – 1979.
It’s existence is disputed by the south and US side however. On a tour of the North Korean DMZ you can visit a section where the wall is clearly visible however this could also just be anti-tank barriers that are acknowledged by the south.
Just 7km from the North Korean DMZ and formally the capital of Korea, Kaesong city is a fascinating place to spend the afternoon. It’s home to the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Zone and famed for its ginseng production.
The city changed hands a few times during the Korean war. It was located below the 38th parallel before the war but was captured twice by the North and finished north of the DMZ by the time of the Armistice agreement. Due to this, the city was barely bombed and is now famous for having the best preserved old town in North Korea.
Kaesong has UNESCO World Heritage sites in the form of the Koryo Songgyungwan (Koryo dynasty higher education university that now houses a museum) and the Kaesong Namdae Gate.
Overnight at the North Korean DMZ
Fancy a DMZ overnight option? Kaseong boasts a traditional hotel in the center of its old town. Dating from the Joseon period, the Kaesong Folk hotel is a relic and a wonderful overnight experience. Guests sleep on padded mats on the floor with all rooms having traditional under floor heating systems.
The hotel restaurant serves traditional “pansangi” which is numerous bronze bowls filled with a variety of side dishes including fish, pork, vegetables, rice, kimchi and other preserved goods. Pansangi was served to royalty during the Koryo Dynasty, with the more bowls served indicating the “importance” of a dinner guest.
Visiting Sariwon City
The last stop on your drive back to Pyongyang will be at the recently opened city of Sariwon.
The capital of North Hwanghae Province and one of the largest cities in the DPRK, Sariwon is well worthy of a quick stop.
Visit the “folklore street”and climb to the pagoda which offers sweeping views over the city. You can also try the local Makolli drink and even try on ancient Korean costumes for a quick photoshoot!