At the Joint Security Area (JSA), North and South Korean troops stood face-to-face, creating a quiet dissonance with the civilian tourists like me. Since visiting the JSA was possible only through an accredited tour company, I chose Indiway after reading great reviews about them. Overall, the tours were packed with activities but didn’t feel rushed. Even the bus rides to and from Paju were fun because the tour guides, who spoke excellent English, told stories on the divided nations.
1. What are the JSA and DMZ tours?
At the JSA tour, the most noteworthy thing you’ll see is the North and South Korean soldiers standing still, confronting one another right behind the border. In addition, you’ll visit a conference room, which lies half in North and another half in the South Korean soil. The North and South Korean sides hold meetings in these rooms.
At the DMZ tour, at first, you’ll visit Dorasan train station and perhaps imagine what it’d be like for the two Koreas to unite. Secondly, at Dorasan observatory, you’ll observe the eerily empty North Korean propaganda city of Ki Jung Dong from afar through binoculars. Lastly, you’ll walk in the tunnel that the north had dug to attack Seoul.
If you’re pressed for time, I recommend the JSA-only tour. It seems that some might have reservations about safety. However, a JSA tour gets canceled when it could get dangerous, according to my tour guide.
The border or the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) is marked by a red line between the yellow lines, which refer to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), an area that cushions the volatile border.
2. JSA Tour
On the day of tour, a driver took me to Hotel President in Euljiro, where I received a hard copy of the itinerary and hopped on a tour bus. The bus was full and the ride was fun. Our enthusiastic tour guide Gina Lee told cool stories about JSA, like the time Obama had visited. Also on the bus was a North Korean defector who openly shared her North Korean life and escape stories.
When we finally arrived at JSA, we waited 15 minutes in the bus for security clearance. We put the guest badge on our coats and tucked away our bags, which we were not allowed to bring to site. Only small items like phones and cameras were allowed. So I took my phone, passport and wallet with me.
At JSA, you’ll visit two major sites. First of all, at Camp Bonifas, you will have a quick briefing at the visitor center. After briefing, you’ll hop on the United Nations bus for a short ride to the Freedom House, which segues into JSA and the conference rooms. In the end, the tour bus will take you back to Camp Bonifas for souvenir shopping.
1) Camp Bonifas
We had a quick briefing at Camp Bonifas, learning about Korean War, history of JSA and more.
This is a map of JSA. The gray building behind the parking lot in the center is Freedom House. Behind Freedom House, there are seven long and narrow conference rooms that stand between the North and South Korean territories. The white-roofed buildings belong to the North and the blue ones to the United Nations Command.
2) Freedom House
We waited a few minutes for clearance in the lobby of Freedom House and exited through the back door, which led to JSA. The sun was shining and the air was cold, but there was something more: The tension.
From there, we were quickly ushered to a conference room, which stretched beyond the demarcation line to the north. From a conference room window I could see that I had crossed the line and was standing in the North Korean ground. In the room, two South Korean soldiers stood, their faces masked with black tinted sunglasses. All of us the tourists took selfies with them!
3. Lunch in Imjingak
For lunch we had two options: bulgogi (beef stew) or bibimbap (vegetarian). While most of us had family-style bulgogi stew with side dishes, some vegetarians opted for a bowl of bibimbap. The food was great. In addition, there were street vendors for coffee and snacks. Imjingak also had a beautiful park that we got to check out near the end of the DMZ tour.
4. DMZ Tour
1. Dorasan train station
Dorasan train station holds the South Koreans’ hope for reunification. Though it briefly had trains go to North Korea in 2002, that has stopped since. Purchase a platform ticket for ₩1,000 (a dollar) to see the train tracks heading north.
2. Dorasan observatory
Bring coins to Dorasan observatory to feed the binoculars and see North Korea up close. Through the lenses, you’ll see the Kaesung Industrial Complex, the city of Kaesung and the unpopulated propaganda village, Ki Jong Dong.
3. The third infiltration tunnel
In the 1970s, South Korea found tunnels that the North Koreans had dug to attack Seoul. The tunnels were disguised as coal mines. As a result of South Korea’s discovery, North Korea blockaded the tunnels from their side. The third infiltration tunnel tour involved going down and walking to the northern end of the tunnel, which took about an hour. No cellphones or cameras were allowed inside.
This is the entrance to the tunnel. The tunnel is basically a wet cave. So you will feel warm and maybe stuffed in the tunnel. In addition, water will drop from the ceiling in some parts so dress accordingly. On the way back up, I saw dynamite holes on the upper sides of the tunnel, which were small, deep, circular and painted yellow to place and explore the dynamites and extend the tunnel southbound.
After DMZ tour, the ride back to Seoul took longer than the morning ride to Paju because of the city traffic. The tour bus dropped us by the three-way intersection at Itaewon subway station (Line 6).
Indiway offers four tour options for JSA and DMZ. I booked the JSA & DMZ full day tour because I wanted the complete experience. Both tours (JSA in the morning and DMZ in the afternoon) were terrific.
|DMZ Morning Tour||Mon – Sun||₩46,000|
|DMZ Afternoon Tour||Mon – Sun||₩66,000|
|JSA Tour||Mon – Fri||₩87,000|
|JSA & DMZ Tour||Mon – Sat||₩137,000|
1.Make a reservation online
After I selected my tour type and date, I was prompted to give my name on passport and passport number. I paid via PayPal, which automatically converted the booking fee to my currency.
A payment receipt arrived via email asking me to keep an eye for an email voucher.
2. Receive an Email Voucher
In the email voucher, you can see the actual pickup location and the pickup time.
Bring your passport and the voucher on the tour date.
6. Million Dollar Tour Tips
1. Doble check the voucher email
Double check your name and passport number in the email voucher and read through the dress code and safety.
If your information doesn’t match the records, you won’t have access to the tours.
2. Bring your passport to the tour
The first thing my pickup driver asked me in the morning of the tour was “Can I see your passport?”
3. Follow the dress code
Since there’s a strict dress code at JSA for safety purposes, don’t wear military clothes, because you could be a target to North Korean soldiers, or distressed jeans, because you could be featured in the North Korean propaganda as a poor tourist in South Korea!
In addition, in the third infiltration tunnel in DMZ tour, you might feel hot so wear layers that you can take off.
4. Expect the wait times
Safety is a concern for JSA tour, so expect some downtimes for security clearance.
5. Take only what you can carry
Because of security reasons, you’ll be asked to leave your bag in the bus at JSA. So take your camera, wallet, phone or anything that fits in your pocket. Cameras have to be out of the camera bags.
6. Be quick about taking photos
In the conference room and outside at JSA, you will probably only have a few minutes to take photos. So take advantage of that time and snap as many photos as you can. In addition, go for that selfie with the South Korean soldier that you can’t take it anywhere else!
7. Know that photos are not allowed in some places
As a result, take pictures only in designated areas.
8. Arrange ride back home/hotel from Itaewon subway station (Line 6)
The bus dropped us at the three-way intersection above the underground Itaewon subway station. In addition to the subway, there were many buses and cabs in the area. If confused about how to get back, ask the tour guide for clarifications.
9. Make friends and have fun!
I joined this tour alone and made so many friends by the end of the day. Most of all, the tour was a cool way to meet tourists from all over the world and share our travel and life experiences. After the drop-off in Itaewon, I grabbed Korean barbecue dinner at Maple Tree House with the people I had befriended from the group. It was delicious!
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