I recently took a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the armistice border between North and South Korea. The tour organizer was the USO, what I believe to be a unique and economical way to visit the DMZ.
To visit the DMZ, you have to go by organized tour. You can’t just rent a car and go yourself. There are a number of tour operators, however, the USO, which is a support organization for the United States military, operates one of the more economical tours to the DMZ. Further, being a military tour, your tour bus gets to skip some of the roadblocks on the way to the DMZ. I took the full-day tour, which I would wholeheartedly recommend. We travelled by a high quality and air conditioned coach.
We met early in the morning at the USO office, making sure to abide by the UN dress code. We quickly made our way to the first stop, one of the many underground tunnels built by the DPRK in the direction of Seoul.
The tunnel was extremely deep, and I would recommend that anybody with a health condition skip this part of the tour.
After visiting the tunnel, we headed off for lunch (meh) and then to the Joint Security Area (“JSA”), the UN/US base on the DMZ. Driving there was surreal, with signs all over the road warning of land mines throughout the forest.
At the JSA, we were given a security brief by a US soldier, telling us to only take photos when given permission, not to mock the DPRK soldiers, and to observe any direction. We visited a number of lookout points, including where you can see the DPRK “Propaganda Village”, an area clearly visible that shows a modern village. The village is unoccupied, and is merely for show. It also contains the world’s largest flag pole.
The coolest part of the trip was to visit the armistice building, the building on the border line separating the peninsula. Half of the building is in the North, the other half in the South. So technically, you can stand in North Korea. At the spot, the US soldier instructed us to take pictures of the DPRK soldier, because it made them upset. Further, South Korean guards were standing along the border, in one of the most creepy positions imaginable.
There are a couple gift shops throughout the tour, but the only one worth visiting is at the JSA. It had the normal UN/US army gear you’d find at any other similar gift shop, but most notably, they had goods produced in the DPRK! They had such things as candy, trinkets, and most importantly, North Korean booze! Of course we picked up a bottle of North Korean “white wine” (it was actually pink and chunky). How was it? Disgusting. We actually ended up dumping most of it in the toilet, but it was something to have tried it, and definitely worthwhile!
We also visited a non-operational train station connection the two countries, and a couple of other lookout points. While at the DMZ, you could hear propaganda music blaring from the North, which was surreal.
Also of note was how “propaganda-ey” the UN/US officials were. For example, any time they referred to a DPRK soldier or of the country, it was always preceded by “communist”.
I would highly recommend the USO tour, and would consider it a must while visiting Seoul. I’d recommend packing your own lunch though, as the cafeteria they bring you to is pretty bad.