What It’s Like to Be a Tourist in a War Zone: Inside a Visit to the DMZ From South Korea

In 2013, while visiting the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), I had one of the most surreal tourism experiences of my life. But it wasn’t for the reason I expected. If you don’t remember, 2013 was also the year that a jointly run North and South Korean factory was temporarily shut down (and the resolution talks were held by representatives in the DMZ). There was a general feeling of unease, and I wondered if my scheduled tour would be canceled due to recent events.

At the time of my visit, the DMZ was surprisingly accessible to American tourists. My friend signed us up for a tour through the American military base at which her husband taught school. We signed a waiver that basically said we knew we could die, made sure to adhere to the conservative dress code, and boarded a bus outside of Seoul that made a number of stops just inside the two-and-a-half-mile area between North and South Korea. (The stops varied depending on tour and availability.) 

While it’s true that North and South Korea are technically in a cease-fire, and I never once felt like I was in danger while there, the tension was palpable. I was hyper-aware of the number of armed guards. The idea that I could safely and easily access a place that caused so much heartache for others stood out in my mind. (A North Korean was shot while defecting through the DMZ as recently as November last year.) I was prepared to feel somber, but I wasn’t ready to feel like I was complicit in a tourist trap at the most heavily-armed border in the world.  

First, our bus pulled into Imjingak, a lackluster amusement park (closed the morning of my visit) adjacent to the Bridge of Freedom. A few rides and food stands make up the park -- it wasn’t what I had expected to see when I signed up for a tour of the DMZ.

We then stopped at a visitor center and the Third Infiltration Tunnel, part of a series of tunnels dug by North Koreans in the 1970s. My friend and I walked with the crowds down the dark, rock-lined tunnel, which gets increasingly smaller the further in you go (not great if you are claustrophobic).

We then headed back to the bus and made our way to the next stop on the tour -- Dora Observatory, a viewing area complete with a gift shop. You can conveniently buy a T-shirt and stare at North Korea in one stop. There is a yellow line on the ground at the observatory where, once you cross over it, you aren’t allowed to take photographs (the armed guards will remind you). I peered through telescopes to catch a glimpse of the muted landscape of the DMZ -- mostly trees and bushes, with mountains in the background. It was hazy that day, but I could make out the buildings of two villages in the distance. One village, Daeseong-dong, functions with South Korean residents (only descendants of original residents from before the DMZ existed) and farms. The other, Kijong-dong (referred to as “Peace Village” in North Korea and “Propaganda Village” by those outside of North Korea), is reportedly full of only building facades and loud-speakers blasting propaganda. 

Finally, we stopped at the most famous sight in the DMZ -- the blue buildings of the Joint Security Area, which you’ve likely seen it on TV. Our group was led by armed guards into one of the buildings. It’s a conference room with office chairs (our guide said there had even been chair height hijinks at past peace talks) and mahogany tables. It’s the closest to North Korea I’ve ever been, and technically, I crossed over the demarcation line that separates the North and South inside the conference room. Selfies were taken by some.

The last stop on the tour was Dorasan Station, a train station that serves as the end point for trains running from South Korea. We drove by the Bridge of No Return (used for prisoner exchanges after the war) and took photos through our bus windows.

Despite the barbed wire and heavy military presence, I would describe the day as anticlimactic, in a good way, but with a thread of disquiet running through the entire experience. I felt a bit voyeuristic, looking out to the other side from afar, filling in details with my imagination. Perhaps tourism helps support the local economy in a beneficial way. At the same time, it’s a place of life and death, where some have paid a high price for seeking freedom. But there’s no mistaking it’s also a tourism destination, where you can participate from the relative safety of a bus or observation deck.

All photos by Laura Hinely.

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