Korea’s Heavily Armed Border Is Packed With Tourists. Dmz north korea

Korean Demilitarized Zone - Wikipedia

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ; Hangul: 한반도 비무장 지대; Hanja: 韓半島非武裝地帶) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula. It is established by the provisions of the Korean Armistice Agreement to serve as a buffer zone between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The demilitarized zone (DMZ) is a border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half. It was created by agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations in 1953. The DMZ is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long, and about 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) wide.

Within the DMZ is a meeting point between the two nations in the small Joint Security Area near the western end of the zone, where negotiations take place. There have been various incidents in and around the DMZ, with military and civilian casualties on both sides.


The Korean Demilitarized Zone intersects but does not follow the 38th parallel north, which was the border before the Korean War. It crosses the parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it.

The DMZ is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long,[1] approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide. Though the zone separating both sides is demilitarized, beyond that strip the border is one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world.[2] The Northern Limit Line, or NLL, is the disputed maritime demarcation line between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea, not agreed in the armistice. The coastline and islands on both sides of the NLL are also heavily militarized.[3]


The 38th parallel north—which divided the Korean Peninsula roughly in half—was the original boundary between the United States and Soviet Union's brief administration areas of Korea at the end of World War II. Upon the creation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, informally North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, informally South Korea) in 1948, it became a de facto international border and one of the most tense fronts in the Cold War.

Both the North and the South remained dependent on their sponsor states from 1948 to the outbreak of the Korean War. That conflict, which claimed over three million lives and divided the Korean Peninsula along ideological lines, commenced on 25 June 1950, with a full-front DPRK invasion across the 38th parallel, and ended in 1953 after international intervention pushed the front of the war back to near the 38th parallel.

In the Armistice Agreement of 27 July 1953, the DMZ was created as each side agreed to move their troops back 2,000 m (2,200 yards) from the front line, creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) goes through the center of the DMZ and indicates where the front was when the agreement was signed.

Owing to this theoretical stalemate, and genuine hostility between the North and the South, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the line, each side guarding against potential aggression from the other side. The armistice agreement explains exactly how many military personnel and what kind of weapons are allowed in the DMZ. Soldiers from both sides may patrol inside the DMZ, but they may not cross the MDL; ROK soldiers, however heavily armed, patrol under the aegis of military police, and have memorized each line of the armistice.[4] Sporadic outbreaks of violence have killed over 500 South Korean soldiers, 50 US soldiers and 250 soldiers from DPRK along the DMZ between 1953 and 1999.[5]

Daeseong-dong (also written Tae Sung Dong) and Kijŏng-dong are the only settlements allowed by the armistice committee to remain within the boundaries of the DMZ.[6] Residents of Tae Sung Dong are governed and protected by the United Nations Command and are generally required to spend at least 240 nights per year in the village to maintain their residency.[6] In 2008, the village had a population of 218 people.[6] The villagers of Tae Sung Dong are direct descendants of people who owned the land before the 1950–53 Korean War.[7]

To continue to deter North Korean incursion, in 2014 the United States government exempted the Korean DMZ from its pledge to eliminate anti-personnel landmines.[8]

Joint Security Area[edit]

View of the North from the southern side of the JSA Conference Row seen from the northern side of the JSA

Inside the DMZ, near the western coast of the peninsula, Panmunjom is the home of the Joint Security Area (JSA). Originally, it was the only connection between North and South Korea[9] but that changed on 17 May 2007, when a Korail train went through the DMZ to the North on the new Donghae Bukbu Line built on the east coast of Korea. However, the resurrection of this line was short-lived, as it closed again in July 2008 following an incident where a South Korean tourist was shot to death.

There are several buildings on both the north and the south side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), and there have been some built on top of it. The JSA is the location where all negotiations since 1953 have been held, including statements of Korean solidarity, which have generally amounted to little except a slight decline of tensions. The MDL goes through the conference rooms and down the middle of the conference tables where the North Koreans and the United Nations Command (primarily South Koreans and Americans) meet face to face.

Within the JSA are a number of buildings for joint meetings called Conference Row. These are used for direct talks between the Korean War participants and parties to the armistice. Facing the Conference Row buildings are the North Korean Panmungak (English: Panmun Hall) and the South Korean Freedom House. In 1994, North Korea enlarged Panmungak by adding a third floor. In 1998, South Korea built a new Freedom House for its Red Cross staff and to possibly host reunions of families separated by the Korean War. The new building incorporated the old Freedom House Pagoda within its design.

Since 1953 there have been occasional confrontations and skirmishes within the JSA. The axe murder incident in August 1976 involved the attempted trimming of a tree which resulted in two deaths (Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett). Another incident occurred on 23 November 1984, when a Soviet tourist named Vasily Matuzok (sometimes spelled Matusak), who was part of an official trip to the JSA (hosted by the North), ran across the MDL shouting that he wanted to defect.[10] North Korean troops immediately chased after him, opening fire. Border guards on the South Korean side returned fire, eventually surrounding the North Koreans as they pursued Matusak. One South Korean and three North Korean soldiers were killed in the action, and Matusak was not captured.[11]

In late 2009, South Korean forces in conjunction with the United Nations Command began renovation of its three guard posts and two checkpoint buildings within the JSA compound. Construction was designed to enlarge and modernize the structures. Work was undertaken a year after North Korea finished replacing four JSA guard posts on its side of the MDL.[12]


Both North and South Korea maintain peace villages in sight of each other's side of the DMZ. In the South, Daeseong-dong is administered under the terms of the DMZ. Villagers are classed as Republic of Korea citizens, but are exempt from paying tax and other civic requirements such as military service. In the North, Kijŏng-dong features a number of brightly painted, poured-concrete multi-story buildings and apartments with electric lighting. These features represented an unheard-of level of luxury for rural Koreans, north or south, in the 1950s. The town was oriented so that the bright blue roofs and white sides of the buildings would be the most distinguishing features when viewed from the border. However, based on scrutiny with modern telescopic lenses, it has been claimed the buildings are mere concrete shells lacking window glass or even interior rooms,[13][14] with the building lights turned on and off at set times and the empty sidewalks swept by a skeleton crew of caretakers in an effort to preserve the illusion of activity.[15]


In the 1980s, the South Korean government built a 98.4 m (323 ft) flagpole in Daeseong-dong, which flies a South Korean flag weighing 130 kilograms (287 pounds). In what some have called the "flagpole war," the North Korean government responded by building the 160 m (525 ft) Panmunjeom flagpole in Kijŏng-dong, only 1.2 km (0.7 mi) west of the border with South Korea. It flies a 270 kg (595 lb) flag of North Korea. As of 2014, the Panmunjom flagpole is the fourth tallest in the world, after the Jeddah Flagpole in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at 170 m (558 ft), the Dushanbe Flagpole in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, at 165 m (541 ft) and the pole at the National Flag Square in Baku, Azerbaijan, which is 162 m (531 ft).[16][17]

DMZ-related incidents and incursions[edit]

Since demarcation, the DMZ has had numerous cases of incidents and incursions by both sides, although the North Korean government typically never acknowledges direct responsibility for any of these incidents (there are exceptions, such as the axe incident).[18] This was particularly intense during the Korean DMZ Conflict (1966–1969) when a series of skirmishes along the DMZ resulted in the deaths of 43 American, 299 South Korean and 397 North Korean soldiers.[19] This included the Blue House Raid in 1968, an attempt to assassinate President Park Chung Hee at the Blue House.[20]

In 1976, in now-declassified meeting minutes, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Clements told Henry Kissinger that there had been 200 raids or incursions into North Korea from the south, though not by the U.S. military.[21] Details of only a few of these incursions have become public, including raids by South Korean forces in 1967 that had sabotaged about 50 North Korean facilities.[22]

Incursion tunnels[edit]

Entrance to the North Korean-dug 4th Infiltration Tunnel, Korean DMZ

Since 15 November 1974, South Korea has discovered four tunnels crossing the DMZ that had been dug by North Korea; the orientation of the blasting lines within each tunnel indicated they were dug by North Korea. North Korea claimed that the tunnels were for coal mining; however, no coal was found in the tunnels, which were dug through granite. Some of the tunnel walls were painted black to give the appearance of anthracite.[23]

The tunnels are believed to have been planned as a military invasion route by North Korea. They run in a north-south direction and do not have branches. Following each discovery, engineering within the tunnels has become progressively more advanced. For example, the third tunnel sloped slightly upwards as it progressed southward, to prevent water stagnation. Today, visitors from the south may visit the second, third and fourth tunnels through guided tours.[24]

First tunnel[edit]

The first of the tunnels was discovered on 20 November 1974, by a South Korean Army patrol, noticing steam rising from the ground. The initial discovery was met with automatic fire from North Korean soldiers. Five days later, during a subsequent exploration of this tunnel, US Navy Commander Robert M. Ballinger and ROK Marine Corps Major Kim Hah-chul were killed in the tunnel by a North Korean explosive device. The blast also wounded five Americans and one South Korean from the United Nations Command.

The tunnel, which was about 0.9 by 1.2 m (3 by 4 ft), extended more than 1 km (0.62 mi) beyond the MDL into South Korea. The tunnel was reinforced with concrete slabs and had electric power and lighting. There were weapon storage and sleeping areas. A narrow-gauge railway with carts had also been installed. Estimates based on the tunnel's size suggest it would have allowed considerable numbers of soldiers to pass through it.[25]

Second tunnel[edit]

The second tunnel was discovered on 19 March 1975. It is of similar length to the first tunnel. It is located between 50 and 160 m (160 and 520 ft) below ground, but is larger than the first, approximately 2 by 2 m (7 by 7 feet).

Third tunnel[edit]

The third tunnel was discovered on 17 October 1978. Unlike the previous two, the third tunnel was discovered following a tip from a North Korean defector. This tunnel is about 1,600 m (5,200 ft) long and about 73 m (240 ft) below ground.[26] Foreign visitors touring the South Korean DMZ may view inside this tunnel using a sloped access shaft.

Fourth tunnel[edit]

A fourth tunnel was discovered on 3 March 1990, north of Haean town in the former Punchbowl battlefield. The tunnel's dimensions are 2 by 2 m (7 by 7 feet), and it is 145 metres (476 ft) deep. The method of construction is almost identical in structure to the second and the third tunnels.[27]

Korean Wall[edit]

According to North Korea, between 1977 and 1979 the South Korean and United States authorities constructed a concrete wall along the DMZ.[28] North Korea, however, began to propagate information about the wall after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the symbolism of a wall unjustly dividing a people became more apparent.[29]

Various organisations, such as the North Korean tour guide company Korea Konsult, claimed a wall was dividing Korea, saying that:

In the area south of the Military Demarcation Line, which cuts across Korea at its waist, there is a concrete wall which ... stretches more than 240 km (149 mi) from east to west, is 5–8 m (16–26 ft) high, 10–19 m (33–62 ft) thick at the bottom, and 3–7 m (10–23 ft) wide in the upper part. It is set with wire entanglements and dotted with gun embrasures, look-outs and varieties of military establishments.[30]

The Korean Wall in the Demilitarized Zone seen through binoculars from the North Korean side

In December 1999, Chu Chang-jun, North Korea's ambassador to China, repeated claims that a "wall" divided Korea. He said the south side of the wall is packed with soil, which permits access to the top of the wall and makes it effectively invisible from the south side. He also claimed that it served as a bridgehead for any northward invasion.[31][32]

The United States and South Korea deny the wall's existence, although they do claim there are anti-tank barriers along some sections of the DMZ.[33]

In the RT documentary 10 Days in North Korea, the crew shot footage of a wall as seen from North Korea and described it as a "5 metre high wall stretching from east to west".[34] Dutch journalist and filmmaker Peter Tetteroo also shot footage of a barrier in 2001 which his North Korean guides said was the Korean Wall.[28]

North Korean side of the DMZ[edit]

The North Korean side of the DMZ primarily serves to defend North Korea from invasion by South Korean forces. However, it also serves a similar function as the Berlin Wall and the inner German border did against its own citizens in the former East Germany in that it stops North Korean citizens from defecting to South Korea.[35][36]

DMZ, North Korea. Electric fences are used in the Korean Demilitarized Zone as a means to seal off North Korea from South Korea. Behind the fence, there is a strip which has land mines hidden beneath it.

From the armistice until 1972, approximately 7,700 South Korean soldiers and agents infiltrated North Korea to sabotage military bases and industrial areas.[37]

North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces near the DMZ. According to a 2018 article in The Economist, North Korea could bombard Seoul with over 10,000 rounds every minute.[38] Experts believe that 60 percent of its total artillery is positioned within a few kilometers of the DMZ acting as a deterrent against any South Korean invasion.


Loudspeaker installations[edit]

From 1953 until 2004 both sides broadcast audio propaganda across the DMZ.[39] Massive loudspeakers mounted on several of the buildings delivered DPRK propaganda broadcasts directed towards the south as well as propaganda radio broadcasts across the border.[13] In 2004, the North and South agreed to end the broadcasts.[39]

In August 2015, a border incident occurred where two South Korean soldiers were wounded after stepping on landmines that had allegedly been laid on the southern side of the DMZ by North Korean forces near an ROK guard post.[40][41] Both North Korea and South Korea then resumed broadcasting propaganda by loudspeaker.[42] After four days of negotiations, on August 25, 2015 South Korea agreed to discontinue the broadcasts following a statement from North Korea's government expressing "regret" for the landmine incident.[43]

On 8 January 2016, in response to North Korea's supposed successful testing of a hydrogen bomb, South Korea resumed broadcasts directed at the north.[44] On 15 April 2016, it was reported that the South Koreans purchased a new stereo system to combat the North's broadcasts.[45]


Both North and South Korea have held balloon propaganda leaflet campaigns since the Korean War.

In recent years, mainly South Korean non-governmental organizations have been involved in launching balloons targeted at the DMZ and beyond. Due to the winds, the balloons tend to fall near the DMZ where there are mostly North Korean soldiers to see the leaflets.[48] As with the loudspeakers, balloon operations were mutually agreed to be halted between 2004 and 2010. It has been assessed that the activists' balloons may contribute to the decay of remaining cooperation between the Korean governments,[50] and the DMZ has become more militarized in recent years.

Many North Korean leaflets during the Cold War gave instructions and maps to help the targeted South Korean soldiers in defecting. One of the leaflets found on the DMZ included a map of Cho Dae-hum's route of defection to North Korea across the DMZ. In addition to using balloons as a means of delivery, North Koreans have also used rockets to send leaflets to the DMZ.[52]

Civilian Control Line[edit]

The Civilian Control Line is a line that designates an additional buffer zone to the DMZ within a distance of 5 to 20 km from the Southern Limit Line of the DMZ. Its purpose is to limit and control the entrance of civilians into the area in order to protect and maintain the security of military facilities and operations near the DMZ. The commander of the 8th US Army ordered the creation of the CCL and it was activated and first became effective in February 1954.[53]

The buffer zone that falls south of the Southern Limit Line is called the Civilian Control Zone. Barbed wire fences and manned military guard posts mark the Civilian Control Line. The Civilian Control Zone is necessary for the military to monitor civilian travel to tourist destinations close to the Southern Limit Line of the DMZ like the discovered infiltration tunnels and tourist observatories. Usually when traveling within the Civilian Control Zone, South Korean soldiers accompany tourist buses and cars as armed guards to monitor the civilians as well as to protect them from North Korean intruders.

Civilian Control Line, Imjingak, Paju, South Korea

Civilian Control Line, South Korea

Right after the ceasefire, the Civilian Control Zone outside the DMZ encompassed 100 or so empty villages. The government implemented migration measures to attract settlers into the area. As a result, in 1983, when the area delineated by the Civilian Control Line was at its largest, a total of 39,725 residents in 8,799 households were living in the 81 villages located within the Civilian Control Zone.[54]

Most of the tourist and media photos of the "DMZ fence" are actually photos of the CCL fence. The actual DMZ fence on the Southern Limit Line is completely off-limits to everybody except soldiers and it is illegal to take pictures of the DMZ fence. The CCL fence acts more as a deterrent for South Korean civilians from getting too close to the dangerous DMZ and is also the final barrier for North Korean infiltrators if they get past the Southern Limit Line DMZ fence.[55]

Neutral Zone of the Han River Estuary[edit]

The whole estuary of the Han River is deemed a "Neutral Zone" and is off-limits to all civilian vessels and is treated like the rest of the DMZ. Only military vessels are allowed within this neutral zone.

According to the July 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement civil shipping was supposed to be permissible in the Han River estuary and allow Seoul to be connected to the Yellow Sea (West Sea) via the Han River.[56] However, both Koreas and the UNC failed to make this happen. The South Korean government ordered the construction of the Ara Canal to finally connect Seoul to the Yellow Sea (West Sea), which was completed in 2012. Seoul was effectively landlocked from the ocean until 2012. The biggest limitation of the Ara Canal is it is too narrow to handle any vessels except small tourist boats and recreational boats, so Seoul still cannot receive large commercial ships or passenger ships in its port.

In recent years Chinese fishing vessels have taken advantage of the tense situation in the Han River Estuary Neutral Zone and illegally fished in this area due to both the North Korean and South Korean navies never patrolling this area due to the fear of naval battles breaking out. This has led to firefights and sinkings of boats between Chinese fishermen and the South Korean Coast Guard.[57][58]

Castle of Gung Ye[edit]

Within the DMZ itself, in the town of Cheorwon, is the old capital of the kingdom of Taebong (901–918), a regional upstart that became Goryeo, the dynasty that ruled a united Korea from 918 to 1392.

Taebong was founded by the charismatic leader Gung Ye, a brilliant if tyrannical one-eyed ex-Buddhist monk. Rebelling against the kingdom of Silla, Korea’s then ruling dynasty, he proclaimed the kingdom of Taebong—also called Later Goguryeo, in reference to the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo (37BC-668AD)—in 901, with himself as king. The kingdom consisted of much of central Korea, including areas around the DMZ. He placed his capital in Cheorwon, a mountainous region that was easily defensible (in the Korean War, this same region would earn the name “the Iron Triangle”).

As a former Buddhist monk, Gung Ye actively promoted the religion of Buddhism and incorporated Buddhist ceremonies into the new kingdom. Even after Gung Ye was dethroned by his own generals and replaced by Wang Geon, the man who would rule over a united Korea as the first king of Goryeo, this Buddhist influence would continue, playing a major role in shaping the culture of medieval Korea.

As the ruins of Gung Ye’s capital lie in the DMZ itself, visitors cannot see them. Moreover, excavation work and research have been hampered by political realities. In the future, inter-Korean peace may allow for proper archaeological studies to be conducted on the castle site and other historical sites within and underneath the DMZ.[59]

The ruins of the capital city of Taebong, the ruins of the castle of Gung Ye, and King Gung Ye's tomb all lie within the DMZ and are off-limits to everybody except soldiers who patrol the DMZ.[60]


Panmunjeom is the site of the negotiations that ended the Korean War and is the main center of human activity in the DMZ. The village is located on the main highway and near a railroad connecting the two Koreas.

The railway, which connects Seoul and Pyongyang, was called the Gyeongui Line before division in the 1940s. Currently the South uses the original name, but the North refers to the route as the P'yŏngbu Line. The railway line has been mainly used to carry materials and South Korean workers to the Kaesong Industrial Region. Its reconnection has been seen as part of the general improvement in the relations between North and South in the early part of this century. However, in November 2008 North Korean authorities closed the railway amid growing tensions with the South.[61] Following the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, conciliatory talks were held between South Korean officials and a North Korean delegation who attended Kim's funeral. In September 2009, the Kaesong rail and road crossing was reopened.[62]

The road at Panmunjeom, which was known historically as Highway One in the South, was originally the only access point between the two countries on the Korean Peninsula. Passage is comparable to the strict movements that occurred at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Both North and South Korea's roads end in the JSA; the highways do not quite join as there is a 20 cm (8 in) concrete line that divides the entire site. People given the rare permission to cross this border must do so on foot before continuing their journey by road.

The Donghae Bukbu Line on Korea's east coast. The road and rail link was built for South Koreans visiting the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region in the North.

In 2007, on the east coast of Korea, the first train crossed the DMZ on the new Donghae Bukbu (Tonghae Pukpu) Line. The new rail crossing was built adjacent to the road which took South Koreans to Mount Kumgang Tourist Region, a region that has significant cultural importance for all Koreans. More than one million civilian visitors crossed the DMZ until the route was closed following the shooting of a 53-year-old South Korean tourist in July 2008.[63] After a joint investigation was rebuffed by North Korea, the South Korean government suspended tours to the resort. Since then the resort and the Donghae Bukbu Line have effectively been closed by North Korea.[64][65]

Currently, the South Korean Korea Railroad Corporation (Korail) organizes tours to DMZ with special DMZ themed trains.[66]

Nature reserve[edit]

In the past half century, the Korean DMZ has been a deadly place for humans, making habitation impossible. Only around the village of Panmunjeom and more recently the Donghae Bukbu Line on Korea's east coast have there been regular incursions by people.[67][68]

This natural isolation along the 250 km (160 mi) length of the DMZ has created an involuntary park which is now recognized as one of the most well-preserved areas of temperate habitat in the world.[69] In 1966 it was first proposed to turn the DMZ into a national park.[70]

Several endangered animal and plant species now exist among the heavily fortified fences, landmines and listening posts. These include the endangered red-crowned crane (a staple of Asian art), the white-naped crane, and, potentially, the extremely rare Siberian tiger,[69]Amur leopard, and Asiatic black bear. Ecologists have identified some 2,900 plant species, 70 types of mammals and 320 kinds of birds within the narrow buffer zone.[69] Additional surveys are now being conducted throughout the region.[71]

The DMZ owes its varied biodiversity to its geography, which crosses mountains, prairies, swamps, lakes, and tidal marshes. Environmentalists hope that the DMZ will be conserved as a wildlife refuge, with a well-developed set of objective and management plans vetted and in place. In 2005, CNN founder and media mogul Ted Turner, on a visit to North Korea, said that he would financially support any plans to turn the DMZ into a peace park and a UN-protected World Heritage Site.[72]

In September 2011, South Korea submitted a nomination form to Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) in UNESCO for designation of 435 km2 (168 sq mi) in the southern part of the DMZ below the Military Demarcation Line, as well as 2,979 km2 (1,150 sq mi) in privately controlled areas, as a Biosphere Reserve according to the Statutory Framework of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.[73] MAB National Committee of the Republic of Korea mentioned only southern part of DMZ to be nominated since there was no response from Pyongyang when it requested Pyongyang to push jointly. North Korea is a member nation of the international coordinating council of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme, which designates Biosphere Reserves.[74]

North Korea opposed the application as a violation of the armistice agreement during the council's meeting in Paris on July 9 to 13. The South Korean government's attempt to designate the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve was turned down at UNESCO's MAB council meeting in Paris in July 2012. Pyongyang expressed its opposition by sending letters to 32 council member countries, except for South Korea, and the UNESCO headquarters a month prior to the meeting. At the council meeting, Pyongyang said the designation violated the Armistice Agreement.[75]

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External links[edit]

Coordinates: 38°19′44″N 127°15′00″E / 38.329°N 127.250°E / 38.329; 127.250


DMZ from North Korea - The World's Most Dangerous Border

Barbed wire lined all fences, tank traps enclosed us and the remainder was a laden, active minefield. One million soldiers stood guard overseeing from outposts, gazing across the border into forbidden lands once unified and the eyes of the South Korean military. The peace treaty was never signed, the war between the North and South of Korea still rages over 60 years on, at least technically, anyway, and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the border between two countries now worlds apart, serves as the best reminder. Here in the eye of the storm at Panmunjom a one-metre misstep could see you shot or carted away to a North Korean ‘re-education’ camp.

It seems dramatic, but that is the reality. There may not be bullets flying overhead or active servicemen crossing the border, but tensions are high. Since the Korean Armistice Agreement was penned in 1953 there has been over 1000 ‘fracases’ and a further approximate 50 serious incidents here, including one recently where a young North Korean soldier defected into South Korean hands across this very border to the east.

It was an exciting prospect to visit the DMZ for myself. I was well versed in the history here and so had clear expectations, however, visiting from the exclusivity of the North Korean side meant a spanner was thrown in the works; I was told to forget all I’d learnt in foreign textbooks about the DMZ and the Korean War in preparation for an ‘alternative’ version of events I’d be briefed on by my Korean People’s Army chaperones. I was told not to argue. I couldn’t wait.

Beyond this, I was itching to get a glimpse of how North Korea handled their side of the DMZ. How strict were they? Was it loaded with propaganda? Was everyone on edge? Was physical militarization visible? Machine guns? Tanks? Either way, I forecasted a massive contrast to the tourist-friendly, dumbed down Disneyland-like characterisation you get on a tour from the South Korean side. I just couldn’t imagine North Korea treating the DMZ in such a playful manner.

In fact, if it was anything like the rest of North Korea, I can expect to bow at some point, to receive stern looks from all I meet, a set of draconian rules, stringent government minders monitoring me at all times…and military checkpoints, lots of them. Apparently, though, the DMZ is also the only place in North Korea I won’t be shot for photographing a soldier. Which is cool. I wanted to see how that goes.

Getting to the DMZ – Leaving Pyongyang

Overnight was in Pyongyang in the fabled Yanggakdo Hotel towering alone on its segregated island in the Taedong River. Away from reality. This meant an 8:15am departure marked the beginning of our three-hour bus trip south, to the most dangerous border on earth.

Pyongyang at all hours is dead quiet, only the metallic sounds of factory production and industrial barges break the silence, an eerie mist fills the skyline. The Yanggakdo Hotel lobby populates early for tour departures, mainly Chinese tourists — by 9am the hotel is a deserted, creepy ghost town and the receptionists cut power to the entire 47-floor building until evening. Tourists aren’t permitted in the hotel alone during daytime hours, if you’re sick, you’re assigned a minder and as usual, legally aren’t even allowed to leave.

Our hotel to the right, Juche tower in the distance and northern Pyongyang to the left.

Abandoning island isolation, our bus shuttled across Pyongyang. An exciting day excursion ahead for myself, but for Pyongyang’s inhabitants under the rule of North Korea’s totalitarian regime, it was just another day.

Pyongyang’s working class pack bus shelters in fifty-metre long lines snaking across roads and around corners. Korean People’s Army soldiers can be spotted overseeing mundane tasks, intimidating those sweeping streets, watering or weeding garden beds. Residents roam sparsely, by foot or cycle — everybody moves with purpose. There’s no loitering, gathering or socialising, there’s no litter and there’s no advertising. North Korea would also have you believe there’s no homeless, in reality, people that bring the model city of Pyongyang into disrepute are displaced outside of it. The colour pallet was dull, citizens are styled in monotone dim shades of clothing similar to that of surrounding crumbling, faded Soviet apartment blocks. Green parks and sunny riverbanks are empty. Eternal Leader Kim Il-Sung and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il sit on the best real-estate, supervising their Stalinist masterpiece years beyond their death. They’re inescapable, their glowing smiles brightening walls, billboards and murals. They’re personified by statues, on television screens inspecting ginseng cultivation and every room exhibits portraiture of their heads. By law.

To say this city is repressive is an understatement.

Good morning, Pyongyang.

“Long live the great revolutionary traditions of our party, hooray!” — “National Reunification, frequent self-defence.” The Arch of Triumph, Pyongyang. Yep, we aren’t in France. The road out of Pyongyang. Eerily desolate for a capital city. Some Chinese-made vehicles can be spotted.

At the outskirts of Pyongyang, we cross underneath the oddly ironic, yet marvellous Arch of Reunification forming a humbling southern gateway to the city. The metropolis ends here. Instantly. It’s akin to bursting through a bubble, a distinct disconnect between the privilege inside and the poverty beyond. What follows is a desolate rural no-mans-land without end in sight. This is the Pyongyang-Kaesong Motorway.

The Arch of Reunification, the southern gateway to the city of Pyongyang. I am facing north looking into the city.

Unofficially labelled the Reunification Highway, the Pyongyang-Kaesong motorway is a six-lane controlled access link between well…Pyongyang and Kaesong (through Sariwon), and hence to the DMZ. There’s no traffic to speak of, however as we discovered there’s no shortage of military checkpoints. Creepily, signs on this highway specify distances to Seoul, South Korea rather than the DMZ. I found this fascinating — was it a remnant of a time since passed, or simply a reunification misdirection for the tourists driven down here? I am unsure.

You’ve actually likely seen this motorway before, it’s regularly featured in foreign media segments of North Korea, including that Vice documentary you’ve watched. Trips to the DMZ are a mandatory inclusion to most Pyongyang tourism itineraries and is usually the only time tourists are allowed out of the political smokescreen of Pyongyang. After a six-year long waiting list, foreign journalists can also be given permission to film in North Korea and are almost always taken down this route. They aren’t allowed to film out the window. The motorway is almost entirely point-to-point, Pyongyang to the DMZ, conveniently skipping villages, towns and farmland that potentially paint slightly conflicting images of Great-self-sustained-Korea.

Rough, pot-holed and unmaintained, true to all roads outside Pyongyang, I found the motorway to be in far better condition than most of North Korea’s infrastructure links. It’s also more ‘sterile’ of propaganda, inspirational banners with quotes from the Kim’s are few and far between in fields or on hillsides unlike the rest of the country. Most notably, however, was how cripplingly lonely the road is.

The long road of loneliness. Otherwise known as the Pyongyang-Kaesong Motorway (Reunification Highway)
North Korean Countryside

It’s about forty-five minutes into the drive before I come across…well, anything at all.

A middle-aged man dressed in a silver suit jacket and pants in the blistering heat, lapel pin of Kim Il-Sung upon his heart. He was bent over heaving a cart up a hill containing a large, live pig. Where he came from? Don’t know. Where was he going? Who knows. The pig appeared proud of itself, though.

Activity increased as we descended further south-west past Sariwon (which we visited in days following). Off-shooting villages visible from the highway finally breathed some life into the barren countryside and were accessible only by walking tracks. People wandered the roadside alone on foot or by bicycle in a daze, sometimes tens of kilometres from the nearest inhabited community. I spotted locals with sacks of corn, bundles of sticks and leaves, sand, livestock and fruit baskets. Supplies are limited in North Korea and act as the primary currency among the countries impoverished. There is a market economy that’s flourished within North Korea over the last twenty years since the famine, but bartering is the norm for those outside major cities. Similarities between less fortunate South-East Asian countries such as Laos could not be dismissed.

I witnessed many exhausted locals pushing broken down motorcycles for miles out here — reliable equipment and fuel are commodities as scarce as hen’s teeth. It dawned on me just as it had done in rural Vietnam, that falling gravely sick in the countryside was essentially a death sentence; hospitals may be hundreds of kilometres away and without vehicles, and with enforced freedom of travel restrictions, people would be lucky to get medical attention. Only those loyal to the regime with clearance can enter Pyongyang. Living in rural North Korea was evidently a harsh lifestyle. Pyongyang tells little of the real story.

Halfway passes and we take a break at what the guides and most foreigners know as the Tea House (Sohung Rest House). For those readers familiar with that Vice documentary on North Korea, it may be recognisable. It’s the location of the ‘Tea Lady’ segment, which I may add was vastly exaggerated on their part as a ghost town. In reality, Sohung Rest House sees regular visitors — it’s the only sanctioned stop between Pyongyang and the DMZ. Nonetheless, it’s a cool feeling to be in such a secluded yet familiar place.

Sohung Resthouse, the only sanctioned stop off between Pyongyang and the DMZ. Vice filmed ‘The Tea Lady’ segment of their documentary in that room to the top left.

After enjoying some tea poured by enthusiastic ladies pleased to handle foreign currency, replenishing my soft drink supplies and dry-reaching from the frankly disgusting toilets that lacked ventilation (I’ll save you the descriptive writing) we were back on our way down the deserted highway.

Farm villages start to rear their head. There’s lot’s of corn crops here, North Korea’s speciality.

A path leading out into remote village communities. All transport is foot or bicycle. There were no cars and motorbikes looked more like antiques and were just as reliable.Questionable dwellings, but this is about as good as it gets outside Pyongyang.

No photos were allowed from this point onwards until the DMZ.

This rule was strictly enforced. We were briefed that today wasn’t one for sneaky snaps out the window. Upon leaving Pyongyang, I saw trains hidden by tall barriers above which the upper half of military tanks were clearly visible. The guides spotted this too and as we passed, all guides turned to watch us like hawks to ensure stealth photos weren’t taken.

It’s no joke. It’s their heads on the chopping block if we don’t abide by the rules. The guides in North Korea are essentially an extension to your own responsibility. They take the fall for minor crimes on your behalf.

Military checkpoints began to appear in rapid succession. Four leading up to the city of Kaesong about 20 minutes apart. This was before we even arrived in the vicinity of the DMZ itself.

Good grief, what is it going to be like once we get there?

Each checkpoint gated off the road splashing Korean signage widely enforcing a stop. They were a simple, yet unsettling process involving the driver passing across papers to an AK47 toting KPA (Korean People’s Army) soldier dressed in military olive green get-up, complete with a peak cap and a whole lot of attitude. Our role was to sit in deathly silence, look ahead on our best behaviour and ensure anything with a lens quickly became invisible. Unless of course, a bus shakedown in North Korea was on your bucket list. I’d rather not. At least not now.

All things considered, these checkpoints are a slight inconvenience at most. Yet, they are an intimidating process but I think that is the point. It’s worth noting that these checkpoints are not for foreigners. As a direct line to Pyongyang, the motorway is well contained and those using it must have purpose and approval.

Overgrown and forgotten. Nearing the end of the Reunification Highway.

Working vehicles outside Pyongyang were rare, but it was commonplace to see people fixing old trucks, cars and 1920’s antique farming equipment by the roadsides all over the country. Every time you passed one, there’s always numerous sets of legs protruding from underneath as all occupants tried to get it back on the road to the next village mechanic. Today we pass such a victim, but one that was familiar to the guides — a Chinese KITC tourist minivan joining us for our timeslot at the DMZ. They waved us down and five minutes later our bus was back on its way joined by eight new occupants.

Not sure about the minivan driver. He stayed behind. Likely discussing terms of his contract on a call to the insurance company, I bet.

Reaching Kaesong

Not long after, we reach Kaesong, a city just a stone throw away from our DMZ destination of Panmunjom. We are told that Kaesong will be where we’ll be staying tonight, sleeping on floor mats in traditional historical Korean dwellings.

Due to its proximity to South Korea, Kaesong provides an interesting role in the economics between the two nations including the morally questionable Kaesong Industrial Region where South Korean companies employ North Korean labour for a pittance on DPRK soil. As we pass through, one guide points out Kaesong Train Station. The tracks lead directly through the DMZ to Dorasan Train Station in South Korea, linking eventually to Seoul. It’s romanticised on the South Korean side as “Not the last train station from the South, but the first station towards the North”, but on the North side, it’s a forgotten and overgrown station since abandoned after political conflicts in 2008.

It’s hard to stomach it’s existence right in front of my eyes, these tracks represent a literal link between long lost relatives segregated across this tiny border just two hours apart. In most areas of the world, you’d hop on the train and be with your family in time for a late breakfast, but between the two Korea’s it’s impossible — one million rifles will do that.

Police officers having a discussion on the barren streets of Kaesong.Colourful traditional housing in Kaesong. Taken from the bus window as we pass through.

The DMZ Landing Area

We are again sternly reminded “no photos, no photos!” as we enter the preliminary area of the DMZ. With a keen eye, the towering flagpoles of both North and South Korea can be seen in the distance less than four kilometres apart, the width of the DMZ splitting each nation.

We embrace yet another (and final, yay!) checkpoint, bringing it to a grand total of seven from Pyongyang to DMZ, not bad.

We soon come to a halt at the suitably communistic-looking gate pictured centre below greeted by a mural of a large pointed finger subset by the slogan “Korea is One!” My Korean is limited so for all I was aware, it could have represented a player being given out at Lords Cricket Ground. Now I can’t unsee it. My first thought after seeing this mural was the irony in that we were standing aside a 4km wide, 250km long minefield purely designed to keep the North and South of Korea away from each other. Call me cynical, but Korea seems everything but ‘one’ to me in this moment.

Oh well, it’s good to see the glasses kept half full.

The entry to the DMZ landing area. There is a meeting room here and even a gift shop with North Korean merchandise. The mural to the left says: “To the next generation: Let them inherit a unified country!” “Korea is One!” The first mural you see at the DMZ entrance.

Now that we are here, there are three sections of the DMZ which I want to make clear, mainly because they confused me initially. I might not be the only one.

There is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) itself — this spans the entirety of the border, sea to sea. It exists as a 4km wide buffer between both Koreas.

Centred on this DMZ buffer zone is the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). This is the actual political border. Overstepping this line is not a place to show your passive aggressive push for reunification — you’ll be shot. The MDL line is not accessible at many spots along the DMZ due to the minefield on both sides. A North Korean citizen that would like to defect to South Korea would have to gain access to the MDL. It’s incredibly challenging and dangerous unless you’re in the military and have been posted there and even then, this will only happen if you are from a loyal background and have sufficient family ties — this way you are easily blackmailed into not taking the leap.

Today we are visiting the MDL through a special accessible section of the DMZ known as the Joint Security Area (JSA). It’s located to the west of the (now uninhabited) village of Panmunjom I’m currently standing nearby. What makes the JSA so unusual is that it’s the only area where the North and South come so face-to-face they could legally kiss.

Which they definitely don’t.

I’m progressive, I’m all for it, but that hurdle may not be a priority right now for some reason.

Anyway, in this staging area of our arrival, we have to ditch the bus. It’s searched with a fine tooth comb and cleared for entry, in the meantime, we are taken to get ‘registered’. Conveniently, the room we are to wait inside doubles as a souvenir hustle, ‘Panmun Souvenir Shop’. I kid you not. Soliciting tourists is a universal language, folks. Not usually a sucker for souvenirs, I’m in North-bloody-Korea and I helped myself to some ginseng jelly, some propaganda stamps and a replica Workers Party of Korea cap. Among other things…

Kim Jong-Un may be eating extra lobster tail this week thanks to that 10 euros. I shouldn’t joke, I mean it’s directly funding the regime, you’re right. But with the Kaesong Industrial Region nearby I felt somewhat less guilty.

As I walked out, ‘Crazy O’, one of my guides, the son of a diplomat, guide of Dennis Rodman and Australian larrikin in North Korean skin, spotted the Ginseng and let off a snicker, some not-so-subtle innuendo and an ‘interesting’ mime. Why? Well, apparently Ginseng is used in Korea for impotence.

Erectile dysfunction. Yep.

Ahh, the International Friendship Exhibition incident, and now this. I just can’t win!

An empty connecting room displays a map of the DMZ and the Korean Peninsula. It’s overlooked by individual photos of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. Note how the frame is thicker at the top so that the leaders are always looking down upon you. These stock portraits are in every household and business.

This, too, is a requirement by law.

Framed photos of the leaders inside the DMZ staging area. Legally required to have a thicker frame at the top to look down upon you.

As we waited for authorisation, it suddenly dawns on me — could I get cell phone signal here? We are right on the border…surely South Korean tower coverage reaches. My iPhone has been on flight mode since boarding the plane in China to Pyongyang because well, as we know, North Korea is a communicative black spot. Sure enough, disabling flight mode showed a two-bar signal to a South Korean cell carrier and I instantly received an automated roaming SMS and one I was sent days earlier.


…And very illegal under North Korean law. After some fleeting feelings of ultimate badass-itry, I set it back to flight mode before I get carted away for ‘spying’ using a ‘GPS Device’ as a ‘puppet’ of South Korea. Or something equally ridiculous along those lines.

Entering the DMZ

Alright, with the bus searched and cleared of nefarious products, we are lined up and marched single file through the gate into the DMZ itself. The bus follows and we re-board with a Korean People’s Army (KPA) colonel and two KPA soldiers to accompany us towards the JSA.

We are getting into the real deal now!

The path we take is set below ground level, built up on both sides by brick, it was one-way and only wide enough for the bus and driving within it made me feel like a rat up a drainpipe. Atop of these girders sit huge bulk blocks of stone and the gaps between are filled in by barbed wire and electric fencing. Behind it on both sides appeared peaceful — lush, long green grass where nature has reclaimed land and is devoid of anything, not even any crops.

That’s because it’s a minefield.

The bus currently sit sandwiched between two desolate fields that form just a small section of the approximate 3 million landmines present across the entire DMZ. Oh and those stone blocks? Those are tank traps, our guides acknowledge them to be rigged with explosives and a necessary evil to prevent military pressure bypassing the fields and streamlining through this paved gateway into North Korea.


Korean People’s Army accompanying us on the short drive into the DMZ towards the JSA between tank traps and an active minefield.

Although North Korea have placed a majority of the mines, they’re also the ones with a track record in circumventing them. The result is a set of four known infiltration tunnels North Korea dug underneath as invasion paths into South Korea, El Chapo over there in Mexico may have gotten some inspiration here from Kim Il-Sung. As you’d expect, after being discovered South Korea locked them down but the third one, in particular, was concerning as it came within just 44 kilometres of their capital Seoul. From the South side on a DMZ tour, you even get the chance to go into one. From the North? Their existence is not acknowledged. Guides have never heard of them.

What’s incredible is that there’s a chance that not all tunnels have been discovered, there could still be hidden passages facilitating people in and out of the country as I type. It’s unlikely, though!

Reaching Panmunjom
The Panmunjom checkpoint within the DMZ  heading to the Joint Security Area (JSA). Note the infamous 160m flagpole in the distance.

Halfway into the DMZ, we make a stop. This is the actual location of the late Panmunjom village — there is now nothing left.

A single military outpost has been erected, pruned gardens line the entrance, and two buildings sit within the vicinity. One being the Negotiation Hall where peace talks were held during the war (the original table exists here) — and the other, the (now) North Korean Peace Museum, which is where the Korean Armistice Agreement was finally signed and history was made. We’re told it was built overnight by the great Workers Party of Korea for the sole reason of facilitating the signing.

Something interesting to note in the image above — see the giant North Korean flag towering in the centre? This is sitting in one of only two villages agreed to remain within the DMZ: Kijongdong in North Korea and Daeseong-dong in South Korea. In the 80’s, South Korea built a 100-metre flagpole on their side of the DMZ, North Korea then took it as intimidation and upped the ante by building the one pictured themselves, much larger at 160m and almost the biggest in the world at the time.

A flagpole war. Much more peaceful.

Unfortunately, North Korea also used that village right up until recently to blast propaganda at the South twenty hours a day, droning away to tired officers to jump the border and enjoy heaven and luxury in the North. I’m not joking. Unsurprisingly it had little effect. It’s been proven that the lights in this village are on timers to give the illusion of activity. It’s now dubbed as ‘Propaganda Village’ from the South for obvious reasons.

Below is the aforementioned South Korean flag sitting in the DMZ-bound town of Daeseong-dong across the border:

South Korean Flag in the distance. The MDL is the line of plants near the surveillance camera. Cross this and you’ll get shot and mess up these otherwise serene gardens with your imperialist blood.
Negotiation Hall at Panmunjom

We first checked out the negotiation hall. On the outside, a sign denotes when Kim Jong-Il first visited this location. This is more of a prelude to the museum than anything — inside contains just the original table, ten white veiled chairs for negotiators, and another two smaller offset tables for officials and that’s about it, nothing riveting but it’s historically relevant. It was built for this purpose only and it remains.

The irony in North Korea going to these lengths to preserve the history and integrity surrounding the Armistice agreement is something special, I just can’t look past it. It’s been six times now they’ve announced their unwillingness to abide by the agreement, even as recent as 2013. Ah, politics.

It’s quite clear this little checkpoint is used as a propaganda machine, a celebration of the ‘victory’ of the North Korean people over the ‘imperialist’ Americans. This becomes clearer at the museum next.

KPA Colonel and I within the Negotiation Hall. Cute little tie!
North Korea Peace Museum at Panmunjom

The North Korea Peace Museum is one room containing three tables. The guides stress they are all the originals, still exactly as left since 1953 with the addition of the armistice agreements and flags within glass casings, of course. A funny observation I couldn’t help but make is that the ‘original’ encased UN flag looked to have seen better days, a little worse for wear after this long. That’s expected, but meanwhile, the North Korean flag on the other table was an absolute cracker, looking brand spanking new, not even a fade in colour. I didn’t question why because I already knew the answer: It was the superior materials that go into the local North Korean product, clearly.

Just one wall of ‘carefully selected’ historical photos within the North Korea Peace Museum at Panmunjom.The battered UN flag, it’s seen better days.

Walls inside the museum were lined with photography. Most were given context with Korean captions that I, unfortunately, couldn’t read. But it was chronological. A celebration of the war ‘victory’ (remember when I said to forget our version of events?) of the Korean people leading up to the formation of the DMZ and beyond.

The word ‘objective’ isn’t one I’d use to describe the museum, not that I expected otherwise. On the walls Americans are shown with their hands up in surrender, there is ‘evidence’ of American aggression and spy activities, Korean People’s Army soldiers shown training and on the battlefield defiantly, grayscale images of civilian celebration and endearment to the cause, and, of course, pictures of Kim Il-Sung doing what he did best, spreading his political wings by shaking hands, signing documents and leading his party to victory and the armistice finale. Kim Jong-Il also has his own wall dedicated to the visit he made, shown in bright colour photography. This visit by the Supreme Leader is recorded by date and time and hits you in the face as you walk in the door.

Exhibits of physical items (or evidence as the guides will describe them) cluttered the perimeter of the room below the photos and were filled with American and South Korean war materials.

They even showcased the axe used in the infamous ‘axe murdering incident’ in the JSA where two Americans were hacked and slaughtered with it by KPA soldiers for cutting down a tree in line with a military outpost in 1976.

Americans are presented as cowards, South Korean ‘puppets’ are slandered and China isn’t mentioned. North Korea is presented as the victim and victor under the wise guidance of Kim Il-Sung. The North Korean tunnels under the DMZ also evade acknowledgement, yet the elusive unicorn of the ‘Concrete Wall’ allegedly built by the Americans in South Korea is mapped out perfectly.

If that wasn’t one-sided enough, a stone monument just outside the front door of the museum reads the following:

The American imperialists, who broke out (provoked) the war in Chosun (Korea) on the 25th June 1950, surrendered on their knees in front of all the heroic North Koreans and signed here the armistice on the 27th July 1953.


Remnants or ‘evidence’ from the ‘surrender’ of the American Imperialists. There’s even a US dollar bill to the top left. More American ‘evidence’ from the war.
Entering the Joint Security Area (JSA)

Another 500 metres or so and we were at the JSA. But not before the bus almost broke down as we pig-rooted our way up the incline preceding it. I tell you what, it’s no wonder cars in North Korea barely run, the drivers here have very little respect for manual transmission.

We are dropped off behind the Panmungak Hall.

This is the large white building that faces you if you were visiting the JSA from the South Korean side. Both South Korean and American guides previously enjoyed toying with tourists by telling them this building was a farce, a fake front just like a movie prop. This is because from your vantage point in South Korea you can’t see whether the building has any depth. So, if there was any doubt in your mind I can confirm with authority that it’s indeed a brick and mortar establishment with a heap of rooms.

Upon disembarking, we are instructed to walk single file once again. It’s very organised and official.

First impression: It’s incredibly peaceful and relaxed here at the JSA. Serene really. It’s silent, and their best landscapers have left their mark as it’s now a beautified tourist landing pad. Unless you knew prior, you wouldn’t have an inkling of the surrounding dangers.

A scripted walk followed onwards to an adjacent stone monument.

Based on the guides mannerisms, this was obviously an important monument. In fact, we discover it’s a memorial to the Eternal President himself, Kim Il-Sung. Who’d have thought? Etched into the stone in bright gold is his final autograph scraped from his last endorsed document on the 7th of July, 1994. Apparently, it’s an analysed direct replica. It appears he was quite the neat writer, it’s scaled well to this size. The document? You know the drill. It was a proposed one ‘country-two systems’ reunification proposal. Of course.

He died the following day though unfortunately. Shame.

Other than this, and discounting the stock portraits present inside rooms of the Panmungak Hall (par for the course), shockingly there is no other Kim family photos, inspirational quotes, banners, leaflets, signs or statues at the DMZ. No face-value propaganda at all. Honestly, this was unexpected. I know that if I were Kim Il-Sung, the first thing I’d be doing is erecting the largest bronze statue on earth of myself right where those tourists on the South Korean side gaze over the border. I feel he missed a great opportunity.

Kim Il-Sung’s final signature transcribed into a memorial at the entry to the Joint Security Area (JSA).

Led by the KPA Colonel, we shuffle through the Punmangak Hall and out into the photogenic central area of the JSA.

The border is where the light gravel turns dark, denoted by the concrete line visible in the photo below – cross that line, you’ll be shot.

A Soviet tourist during the Cold War tried it in 1984 ending in four casualties. So it’s not recommended.

You are looking across into South Korea. This is the Joint Security Area (JSA), it straddles the political border (MDL) within the DMZ. The border is where the light gravel turns dark, denoted by a concrete line. The buildings are halfway in each Korea and the large building ahead is the American/South Korean ‘Freedom House’. North Korean soldiers preparing for our arrival at the Joint Security Area (JSA).

Exemplary North Korean soldiers, complete with hardhats and a great poker face are awaiting us. Two precede us in entering the bright United Nations blue conference room before both taking up positions at the end of the room guarding a single door like statues. Akin to the Queen’s Guard in England, I thought. They are each within arms reach of a pull alarm.

The door they are to guard? This is a door to South Korea, quite literally. Like the door to Narnia, except real.

Just one door knob and a hail of gunfire away from a new life. If they were so inclined.

So close yet so far. A single door away from relative freedom. I noticed even the exemplary KPA officers appeared quite thin in North Korea.

The conference rooms are infamous, they’re synonymous with the DMZ in the pop culture of not only South Korea but on a global scale. They hold novelty value to tourists while providing such an important step to reunification. They straddle the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), half in North Korea, half in South Korea.

This means that the JSA is the only area in North Korea one may peacefully and theoretically “cross” the border into the South — cool right?

Well, sort of. There’s a slight caveat, crossing the MDL can only be done within the constraints of these blue conference rooms. The two sternly looking KPA blokes are technically standing in South Korea in that photo, shielded from the political storm by just four walls and a roof! Freedom is short lived, you can’t even tell whether the air is fresher over that side.

For those that visit the DMZ from the South Korean side, yes these are the same rooms where you can ‘walk into North Korea’. North Korean soldiers will not be in the room, instead, South Korean soldiers will guard the opposite door to North Korea so you aren’t tempted to immigrate illegally into Kim Il-Sung’s haven of freedom. Try to resist the temptation.

These rooms do have a proper purpose, though, they provide a relatively neutral, peaceful platform for face-to-face political negotiations between both Koreas. If they can ever get it organised that is. It rarely happens due to politics and bureaucracy, but prisoner exchanges have also been known to occur here and this is as close to North Korea as the United States diplomats and heads of state are willing to go.

The inside of a Joint Security Area (JSA) conference room. I’m seated at the negotiation table facing the door to South Korea, guarded by two KPA soldiers. The centre of this table, roughly where the microphones are sitting, is the MDL.

Seated as an international delegate, the Colonel gave us a similar introduction as I’ve given you into both the JSA and the conference rooms before linking them back to a politically-laced rundown on what the DMZ represents to North Koreans. This meant another brief on North Korea’s victim-complex starring their imaginary efforts at fostering reunification which is being maliciously denied by the imperialist Americans and ‘puppet’ South Koreans. It’s relentless. His description of events leading up to the DMZ still omitted any allusion to China at all and their role in saving North Korea’s bacon, securing the DMZ and ensuring continued communist rule in the North.

It’s alright, I’m sure he just forgot. We all make mistakes sometimes.

The South Korean side of the JSA was empty. No South Korean or American military nor any tour groups were visible. In fact, I saw no movement at all on that side of the border.

This was a shame, it would have been nice to see the face-off, if not just for photos. I mean…there’s just a couple metres between opposing soldiers all day, I wonder what the interactions are like. Do they want to strangle each other? Do they talk to each other? Are they friends? A game of football with a very strict offside? I doubt it, but today I’d get no confirmation.

What I do know however is that the imperialist Americans and puppet South Koreans weren’t, in fact, off enjoying their free-market screening of the new Transformers movie this weekend. South Korea actually ‘closes’ the DMZ on Sunday and Monday for tours. These are also coincidently the only days a visit from the North is possible. It seems to be a recent policy. Is it an odd timeshare arrangement or a way to prevent opposing tour group confrontation? Waving and pointing does sound pretty dangerous after all.

After being flushed from the room by an intimidating dual-formation of KPA (to the mumble of Korean, which I’m sure was lovely), we now had the opportunity to go camera crazy from the Punmangak Hall.

Soldiers in formation marching towards the border with South Korea just metres ahead.

We could also interact with North Korean soldiers who were more than willing to oblige, even sporting smiles on their faces.

Smiling. In North Korea. Is that even a thing?

It’s a bit odd. The entire JSA experience from the North is much more relaxed than I envisioned. Call me ignorant, but I honestly expected serious faces and five quick controlled minutes watched by on-edge Koreans yelling and shaking their arms each time I made a reach for my camera.

Does it look like that to you?

Two KPA officers and I. They were more than happy to take a snap and crack a smile.

It was quite the contradiction to visiting from the South. Most ironic considering North Korea is the scary, mysterious and volatile boogeyman played up for the tourists on the South Korean side of the DMZ.

To give you an idea, here’s what it’s like to visit the DMZ from South Korea:

Dress code applies! Don’t point here, don’t wave there. No laughing. Serious faces only. Don’t provoke the North Koreans! They will shoot you at any moment. Please sign this waiver as you’re heading into a volatile area. We can only stay for five minutes as it’s too dangerous otherwise, you may start a nuclear war. You better have your cameras ready, but for the love of God please don’t take photos of that. Taking photographs there breaches national security you know?


Meanwhile…on a trip from the North Korean side:

No dress code, relative freedom to take whatever photos you like, go selfie crazy even, hell, take some photos with the military. Disperse from your group, your guides, and have a wander around. Wave, point, make hand signals, the lot. Laugh, even. Anything goes as long as you don’t cross that damn line.

It’s great stuff. Fear-mongering stereotype reinforcement from the South, while on the North side they’re adamant in trolling you into a false sense of freedom and security. North Korea want to appear level-headed, to make you feel comfortable, to present their side of the story and specifically perpetuate the idea that they’re being persecuted more than the Jews have ever been, that their free passage into the South is being restricted by South Korea and the Americans despite their ‘best efforts’ at reunification. The DMZ to any of those visitors from the North is this evidence.

And, frankly, they do a good job. Indeed it’s peaceful, reasonable and easy-going on the North side of the DMZ. As a result, it makes a mockery of the precautions taken by the South; in this moment North Korea certainly doesn’t appear to be the monster we’re led to believe and I couldn’t help but feel this to be a calculated move, part of the Pyongyang propaganda machine that would be no coincidence.

Of course.

If there’s one thing this country has mastered, it’s how to fool your perception.

The JSA in the DMZ is truly an eerily peaceful smokescreen to the ongoing hostility. I entered expecting two bitter military forces antagonising each other to find that instead, they’re provoking one another not with nuclear warfare, but by using their finely-tuned gardening skills on well-kept lawns and plants. It’s like a little competition on who can manicure the biggest hedge. I’d sooner pull out a picnic blanket with a basket of cheese and biscuits here than reach for a machine gun in this ‘active war zone’. Which is what it technically is.

To quell some JSA misconceptions before we finish this tour: There are no guard towers. There is no barbed wire or electric fencing. There are no active servicemen brandishing AK47’s and there are no visible Soviet tanks, military choppers or anti-air installations, nor sharks with frickin laser beams on their heads. There are, however, surveillance cameras. Lots of them. They face us from the ‘Freedom House’ in the South. Nothing speaks freedom more than a building with spy cameras. Thanks, America!

Seriously, the JSA is labelled the ‘Truce Village’ for a reason and it, surprisingly, lived up to it.

The actual militarisation noted above (with maybe the omission of the sharks, but we can’t be sure with North Korea) are set back in the DMZ hidden from view spread 250km across the peninsula. I saw some of it through binoculars during my visit to the ‘Concrete Wall’ further along the DMZ, where North Korea attempt to recreate the Loch Ness Monster. I did a write-up on this weird visit, so if you enjoyed this article, enjoy North Korean misdirection or are reading this because your teacher has you doing a school assignment on the split of Korea, click through here. It’s not as long, I promise.

So that’s the JSA and the DMZ, folks!

And well, that wraps up my time and your tour here of the Demilitarized Zone from the North Korean side. What a fantastic morning it was. We got the tap on the shoulder, and it was time to say goodbye, waving to soldiers smiling as if departing a family Thanksgiving lunch. Thanks for coming. Thanks for having us.

Speaking of which, it’s only 12:30 pm, lunch was next in Kaesong and in true North Korean style we had a whole day ahead of us to fill. On a tour in North Korea they run you knackered so you’ll be too tired to even consider defecting from your hotel!

But, by any measure, I was hungry…

Todays lunch in Kaesong turned out to be Dog Meat Soup. A fellow tourist even found a tooth inside his serving.

Unfortunately, not dog-meat-soup-hungry.

Sigh, North Korea.

I passed!

P.S – Thanks for reading! It’s long, I know. If you enjoyed it, make sure to share with the buttons below! I’ll be releasing more North Korea content soon. Follow on Facebook or Twitter to stay up to date! 

For a further look into the DMZ from the North Korea side, read about their ‘fake’ Concrete Wall here: http://www.earthnutshell.com/north-koreas-loch-ness-monster-the-concrete-wall/For a deeper look at my trip to North Korea, don’t miss my 100 photo montage here: http://www.earthnutshell.com/100-photos-from-north-korea-part1/

P.P.S – Have any of you travelled to the DMZ yourselves, from either the North or South? How did your experience differ? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Cheers guys, Elliott.


Korea's DMZ: Dangerous Divide - National Geographic Magazine

Inside a "shoot house" at Camp Bonifas, South Korean infantrymen armed with live ammunition practice close-quarters combat. The soldiers are stationed a mile from Panmunjom, a DMZ enclave where meetings between North and South Korea are held. The Bonifas troops regularly practice rescue operations in case North Koreans should kidnap U.S. or South Korean officials meeting at Panmunjom.

Day eighteen thousand, give or take a few, of the cease-fire between South and North Korea begins like most other days: Soldiers are preparing for war. In the bitter cold of pre-dawn darkness, 15 South Korean infantrymen huddle together on a road outside a sleeping farm village and streak their faces with camouflage paint. They snap magazines of live ammunition into their M4 assault rifles. With the wind comes a faint strain of martial music, as if from a ghostly parade, carrying from huge speakers mounted across the border in North Korea. At a hand signal from the platoon leader, the soldiers noiselessly line up and then disperse, melting into the surrounding blackness.

Their mission is to patrol a short stretch of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the contentious no-man's-land that has divided the two Koreas for 50 years. The bright lights of Seoul, the South Korean capital, burn less than 35 miles (56 kilometers) away, but here in the fenced-off, land-mined, guard-towered DMZ, the only reality is a shadowy cat-and-mouse game played between soldiers of warring armies. Every 15 minutes the radioman murmurs the platoon's position back to the command post: a road, a rice field dike, now the border itself.

As the platoon approaches a North Korean guard tower, the leader signals his men to stay alert. If the patrol is particularly lucky, a North Korean soldier will recklessly dash through the brush and offer to defect with state secrets. If it is particularly unlucky, the North Koreans will open fire. That would be unlucky for all of us: In a worst-case scenario, Korea's uneasy peace could shatter, spilling war across the peninsula, with millions killed, and then possibly on to China, Japan, and beyond, pushing the world toward possible nuclear war.

Apocalyptic thoughts come easy here. In a world full of scary places—Kashmir, Chechnya, the West Bank—the DMZ is perhaps the scariest of all, considering the massive fire-power deployed on both sides and the brinkmanship practiced by the rival camps. All along the 148-mile (238-kilometer) truce line that bisects the Korean peninsula, hundreds of thousands of well-trained troops from two of the world's largest armies (plus more than half of the 37,000 United States troops stationed in South Korea) stand ready to fight, trained by their commanders to hate their ideological opposites and never to let their defenses down.

This state of emergency has persisted since July 27, 1953, when an armistice agreement halted the vicious fighting of the three-year-old Korean War. The origins of the conflict go back to the end of World War II, when the peninsula was split at the 38th parallel by the Soviet Union and the United States as the Allies drove Japan out of Korea. With the tacit consent of its Soviet patron, North Korea launched a surprise, tank-led invasion across the line on June 25, 1950, seeking to impose communist rule throughout the peninsula. China, another freshly minted communist power, entered the war in October, sending waves of soldiers into North Korea when UN forces threatened to overrun the Yalu River on the Chinese border. By 1953 almost 900,000 soldiers had died—and more than two million civilians had been killed or wounded—as the South Korean military, joined by United Nations troops composed mostly of American units, battled the forces of North Korea and China to a standstill.

The end of fighting did not bring an end to hostilities. To separate enemies straining at their leashes, the armistice carved out the DMZ, a 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) wide swath of mostly mountainous land stretching across the peninsula near the 38th parallel designed to serve as a buffer zone, off-limits to large troop concentrations and to heavy weaponry like tanks and artillery. Straight down its center was drawn the political border, called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). Then as now, anyone trying to cross the MDL would likely be shot.

To this day, South Korea and North Korea do not recognize each other as sovereign nations. In fact the two Koreas are officially still at war. And often they act like it, keeping tensions sharp as a blade throughout the peninsula and especially along the DMZ.


Panmunjeom - Wikitravel


Panmunjeom (판문점), also P'anmunjŏm, is on the demarcation line between North and South Korea.

The village of Kijong-dong, on the North Korean side of the DMZ


The joint security area seen from the north side

A unique living relic of the Cold War era, Panmunjeom is a small village that happened to lie at the final battle front of the Korean War. The truce that ended hostilities was signed here in 1953, but as peace was never agreed to, the two sides are still officially at war over sixty years later and a million men stand guard around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). There are no troops in the DMZ itself (except in the JSA), although both sides of the 4-kilometer strip of land separating the Koreas are the most heavily armed in the world: Pillboxes, land mines, barbed wire, and tank stoppers line the entire border and stretch back halfway to Seoul in the South and Pyongyang in the North. This section is often referred to as the Militarized Zone. In South Korea there are also adjacent border areas called Civilian Control Zones where public access is restricted.

One kilometer east of the former village (now deserted) is the Joint Security Area (JSA), an almost circular patch of land with an 800-meter diameter. The area is jointly policed by the South and North, and the two sides occasionally meet for discussions (or gunshots). Most of the time the soldiers glare at each other across the border and have not been allowed to cross the demarcation line into each other's side since the Axe Murder Incident in 1976 (see below). Panmunjeom is on the Military Demarcation Line, which is the actual border between North and South Korea. The DMZ is a buffer along the north and south sides of the MDL (2 km into North Korea and 2 km into South Korea).

Access to the DMZ is occasionally curtailed at short notice when tensions rise, most recently in May 2010 in the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking. As of July 2010, tours are operating normally again.

DMZ (Dorasan, Imjingak) From city Seoul[edit]

By Train (metro) Seoul station (서울 역) -> Munsan station (문산 역) ->Transfer train at Munsan -> Imjingang station (임진강 역) -> Transfer train at Imjingang -> Dorasan station (도라산 역)

By Bus Bus No 909 or 9710 : Seoul station bus stop, Ytn (서울역,YTN 버스 정류장) -> Transfer at Munsan bus terminal(문산 버스터미널) -> Imjingak tourism bus stop (임진각 관광지 버스 정류장) -> Walk to Imjingang station (임진강 역) -> Transfer to train at Imjingang (임진강) -> Dorasan station (도라산 역)

Bus No 9710 : Haewoon center bus stop (해운센터 버스 정류장) (near MyungDong, 명동) -> Transfer at Munsan bus terminal(문산 버스터미널) -> Imjingak tourism bus stop (임진각 관광지 버스 정류장) -> Walk to Imjingang station (임진강 역) -> Transfer to train at Imjingang (임진강) -> Dorasan station (도라산 역)

From the South[edit]

Visits to Panmunjeom from the South Korean side must be arranged in advance as part of an organized tour, although for foreigners three days' notice usually suffices (longer over weekends). Many companies advertise "daily" tours, but generally tours to the DMZ run only certain days, so check in advance. On tour days, depending on the day, various combinations of tours to 3rd tunnel, tours to Panmunjeom, and joint tours are available.

The rules for who can enter are set by the UN and the US, not North Korea. At present, citizens of China and South Korea will need to make arrangements well in advance (at least two months), while citizens of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, the DPRK, Sudan, Syria and Libya cannot participate. Note that Hong Kong/Macau SAR passports are considered "Chinese", so use a British National (Overseas) or Portuguese passport instead if you can.

  • USO, tel. +82-2-795-3028, [1]. The US military servicemen's organization offers tours that cover both the JSA and the Third Tunnel. Averaging twice a week, payment must be made no less than four days in advance and places fill up fast. US$77 for civilians, lunch not included (bring your own or W10,000 for chow at the canteen). The tours depart from USO's downtown Seoul complex near subway Samgakji stn at 7am and last until approx. 3.30pm. Tours never run on U.S. holidays and are announced on the month they occur.
  • Panmunjom Tour, tel. +82-2-7715593, [2]. A specialist company offering various tours of the JSA (from W77,000) and the DMZ (W60,000; W120,000 with JSA tour). Tours start early in the morning, include lunch and get you back in Seoul by the afternoon.
  • International Cultural Service Club, tel. +82-2-755-0073,
  • Tour DMZ [3]. Offers guided tours of the JSA, DMZ, or both. Tours depart from the So-Gong-Dong LOTTE Hotel near Eulgiro 1(il)-ga Station. Check-in is on the sixth floor; buses depart from the travel lounge on floor 2. Paying with cash or card on the morning of the tour is allowed. Lunch is included in the price. (JSA Tour: W77,000.)

Some Seoul-based companies such as Cosmojin Travel and Grace Travel require only a minimum of 24 hours' notice, but their prices are much higher. Also, their itineraries vary, and may not include entry into the DMZ.

The 62-km journey towards Panmunjeom is a sight in itself. The 12-lane Freedom Road becomes eerily empty as you approach the border, as its primary purpose is to get tanks there as fast as possible if war breaks out. To repel an invasion, both sides of the highway, especially the side facing the Imjin River and open water to North Korea, are covered with barbed wire and dotted with observation posts every few hundred meters. Nearby hills house machine gun emplacements, the median strip has clusters of sandbags for defense, and some bridges above the highway have huge concrete blocks that can be dynamited to block the road. Large illuminated signs, proclaiming Freedom and Democracy in hangeul, face the North.

From the North[edit]

To visit from the DPRK side is relatively straightforward if it is previously specified as part of your tour (most tours include a day trip to the DMZ from Pyongyang). See North Korea for tour agent listings.

The JSA is 215 kilometers south of Pyongyang. The two are connected by the six-lane Reunification Highway, which much like its Southern counterpart is vast, but ultimately poorly maintained and simply empty. Signs along the road count down not the distance to the DMZ, but to Seoul.

Get around[edit]

From the South, travel within the DMZ is possible only in UN vehicles, and you'll be transferred to a UN bus at Camp Bonifas, accompanied by a soldier who will serve as a tour guide in the JSA.

From the North, you will reboard your tour bus at the entrance to the DMZ, accompanied by a member of the Korean People's Army (KPA).

Conference rooms straddling the demarcation line A South Korean military base on the south side of the demilitarized zone, as seen from a North Korean bunker

When booking your tour, be sure to clarify what exactly will be offered. The primary points of interest for most visitors from the south are the Joint Security Area and the Third Tunnel, but not all tour companies have clearance to visit these and you'll have to pay a small premium for those that do.

From the North you will be able to visit the original site of the Panmunjeom village and the Peace Museum that was originally built for and houses original copies of the 1953 armistice. From there it is a short drive to the JSA.

DMZ and JSA[edit]

  • Camp Bonifas, at the southern entrance to DMZ. This is the US/South Korean military base standing "In Front of Them All" should an attack come. Visitors to Panmunjeom will change buses and get briefed here before entering the DMZ.
  • Freedom House, JSA. South Korea's propaganda palace facing the demarcation line. Visitors are usually taken to the Peace Pagoda next to it, which provides good views of the JSA and surrounding countryside. Accessible only from the Southern side.
  • Panmun-guk, JSA. North Korea's propaganda palace facing the demarcation line. Accessible only from the Northern side.
  • T1 through T3, JSA. These are the conference rooms straddling the border: the neat lines of microphones and, outside, the low concrete bar mark the exact position of the line of demarcation. Both South and North Korean soldiers in intentionally intimidating poses stand guard in and around the rooms. You're free to walk around the conference room and can hop from South to North if you wish. Just don't try to leave by the other exit!
  • Bridge of No Return, JSA. After the Korean war, some prisoners of war were given the choice to cross over the bridge or to stay on the side of their captors, hence the name. On August 18, 1976, a US attempt to cut down a poplar tree obstructing visibility of the bridge led to a battle with North Korean forces that left Capt. Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett dead in what was later known as the Axe Murder Incident. The bridge is now closed and a new bridge to the north is used instead. Usually visited from the South only.
  • North Korea Peace Museum, 500m north of the JSA. The building where the armistice agreement was signed. The actual documents are kept here, guarded over by a tattered, faded UN flag and a miraculously well-preserved DPRK flag. The axe of Axe Murder Incident fame is also stored here. Accessible from the North only.
  • Taesong-dong, DMZ. South Korea's showpiece "Freedom Village" in the DMZ, containing a little over 200 farmers working under 24-hour military guard and a 100-meter flagpole. The only ways to become a member of the village is to be born into it or by marriage (women only). Entry into the village is not permitted, but you will pass by on your way to the JSA from the South side.
  • Kijong-dong, DMZ. On the North Korean side, this is a former village built up with fancy apartment blocks and a 160-meter flagpole entered in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's tallest — but nobody lives there, hence its common name "Propaganda Village". Entry into the village is not permitted, but it is clearly visible from the JSA (although binoculars will come in handy).

Outside the DMZ[edit]

On the South Korean side, sites outside the DMZ can be visited more cheaply and with less hassle. An hourly train runs between Seoul and Imjingak for about ₩ 1300 each way. Bus tours passing the Second & Third Tunnel cost ₩ 8000. This is an excellent alternative for the DMZ tours, though it is not possible to visit Panmunjeom this way.

  • Imjingak, Paju. A four-story museum and observatory 7 km south of the DMZ, with views across the Kaesong River towards the DMZ and North Korea. The train line to Pyongyang passes nearby. This is the closest you can get to the DMZ without security clearance. The museum is open 9 AM to 6 PM daily.
  • Second & Third Tunnel. Two of four tunnels secretly dug by the North Koreans that have been discovered so far.


All tourist facilities for foreigners in the DPRK include a gift shop, and the gateway to the DMZ is no exception. Just inside the concrete wall you can purchase Korean art and amongst other things, of course, endless amounts of literature on the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il. Prices are reasonable.


"The Monastery" in Camp Bonifas — actually a former officers' club, whose members used to wear brown robes for ceremonies and call themselves the "Merry Mad Monks of the DMZ" — has a gift shop retailing DMZ-related paraphernalia, including chunks of rusty barbed wire from the original demarcation line (W25,000) as well as blueberry wine from North Korea (brought in via a long detour through China).

The canteen in Camp Bonifas is no longer open to the civilian visitors, so most tours now head to eat elsewhere. There is no food available for purchase on the Northern side and the closest available facilities are in Kaesong.

When entering from South Korea, consumption of alcohol in the DMZ is prohibited and only allowed on special occasions. A tour from the Northern side is considerably more laid back and you may bring your own beverages (if purchased back at the rest stop halfway between Pyongyang and the DMZ).

There is no accommodation for the general public at Panmunjeom. Most visitors from the south day-trip from Seoul, while visitors from the north either do a long day-trip from Pyongyang or overnight in Kaesong.

Room and board at Camp Bonifas is restricted to active duty soldiers in the United States Armed Forces. However, retired servicemen who have received the Medal Of Honor might be able to stay on a "space available" basis. Contact the United Nations Command Security Battalion - Joint Security Area [4] for enquiries.


From the South, a strict dress code [5] applies for all visitors: "faddish, extreme, torn, tattered, frayed, overly provocative or otherwise inappropriate" clothing is not allowed. Sports clothes (incl. tracksuits), military clothing, oversized clothing, sheer clothing, sleeveless shirts/tops, tank tops, anything that bares the midriff or the buttocks, and flip flop-type sandals are specifically banned; clean jeans with a clean T-shirt, on the other hand, are fine. The proclaimed purpose is twofold: one to make sure scruffy hippies don't end up on North Korea's propaganda posters, and the other to make sure nobody trips and falls if somebody starts shooting.

Within the DMZ, photography outside designated points is not permitted, even from the tour bus. Cameras are subject to inspection by the South Korean MPs. Lenses of up to 90mm focal length are allowed although in practice lenses slightly longer than this have been allowed. Tripods are prohibited. You must stay together with the group and follow the tour leader's instructions at all times. In the JSA pointing, waving and gesturing are all off-limits. Your group will be asked to walk around in two lines when in sight of the North Korean side.

From the North, visits to the DMZ are more casual than from the South (e.g., beer is allowed) and restrictions are minimal, although it is wise to show a level of respect and etiquette that befits the highly sensitive location. Unrestricted photography is permitted at the JSA and the Peace Museum. Elsewhere you will have to ask permission.

Stay safe[edit]

From the South, entry into the JSA/DMZ requires signing a voucher where you agree to accept responsibility for "injury or death as a direct result of enemy action". Remember: it may be in a state of suspended animation, but both sides have itchy trigger fingers and it's still a war zone.

Tour companies can and do suspend tours at short notice if the situation escalates, and it's unlikely you'll be allowed into the DMZ if there's any real risk.

Get out[edit]

WARNING: Unless you're planning to risk your life in an attempt to defect, this would be the worst place in the world to attempt to cross a border. You should realize that you will be risking other soldiers lives, as these had happened in past incidents. Therefore, DO NOT attempt to sneak across the border! People who had been trying to sneak across the border HAVE BEEN ARRESTED, and as a consequence have been deported (at best). On top of that, there are risks of getting killed by landmines, tanks and soldiers from either side, and the border is heavily lined with barbed wire.
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DMZ: North Korea Review - GameSpot

Of all the weird and wacky crimes committed by North Korean despot Kim Jong Il, some of the weirdest and wackiest were the kidnappings of Japanese civilians for such disparate duties as training spies and making movies. Still, that was a pretty good scheme, at least for an evil dictator, because nobody would willingly sign up for a tour of duty in Pyongyang. It's also a tactic that developer Jarhead Games (known for such straight-to-Wal-Mart classics as World War II Sniper: Call to Victory) might want to adopt for DMZ: North Korea, because nobody would willingly play this horrible third-person shooter.

You would think that a covert mission beyond the Korean DMZ might be a bit more, um, covert?

There are so many awful things to discuss here that it's hard to decide where to start. But let's begin with the plot, which is B-movie absurdity at its finest. Whoever came up with this saga about an American commando waging a one-man war against North Korea hasn't opened a newspaper in a few years, as the story deals with discovering whether or not the nation has an "under the radar" nuclear-weapons program under way. Yeah, you really need to send in the troops to find that out.

Want more chuckles from the writing? Your code name is "Loveless." Every line of dialogue sounds like it was snapped off while chomping a stogie. The opening spiel from your boss back at HQ is all about getting "intel" and sneaking around, but by mission three you're calling in air strikes to blow up whole North Korean military bases. Mission information is transmitted to you on a laptop while en route to assignments. In the opening mission, you actually get the particulars while piloting a rubber dinghy to the North Korean coast in the dead of the night. Nothing like putting less time into planning these covert ops needed to save the free world than the average housewife spends on writing up a grocery list. Also, you have to take photos of many major objectives, which doesn't always make sense. It's understandable to snap pictures of a missile, but when you're also grabbing shots of assassinations, either you're a ghoul or somebody back in Washington doesn't trust you.

Of course, even the stupidest story can mask a pretty good game. Alas, DMZ: North Korea's gameplay matches its lame premise and script. While the look has been patterned on Splinter Cell based on the way that Loveless wears a Sam Fisher-style frogman suit and night-vision goggles, the game is a kill-'em-all Rambo affair patterned on the shooter design template circa 1997. So ignore the box-cover images; there is no stealth meter, hence no need to determine if you're invisible in the shadows or as obvious as a sheik in suburbia--as silent as death or as loud as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Here you just stomp from point A to point B, throw a few switches, gun down everything that moves, try to act surprised when enemy reinforcements arrive on the way out of Dodge--you know the drill, move along, nothing to see here.

But DMZ doesn't even do a good job of sticking to the basics. There are only a handful of weapons, all of which are dull shooter standards like submachine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and all come with a rat-a-tat whine that most developers jettisoned with their Ad Lib soundcards. Most are nearly impossible to aim, too. Automatic weapons have such a kick that you can't accurately target enemies unless you're on top of them, and even then you're best off aiming at the ground and letting the recoil do the work for you. You can take a break from the shooting and do some driving, but clunky vehicle controls make it as hard to drive a jeep as it is to hit the broadside of a barn with a combat shotgun.

Artificial intelligence is awful. Enemies run around like idiots whenever a firefight begins. This is a step above other awful shooters where the bad guys act deaf, blind, and paralyzed while you plug them from 10 paces away (although you can shoot the hat off of the odd enemy here without him even flinching), yet still annoying in that they sprint so fast that they outrun bullets. It feels more like you're playing paintball with a bunch of third-rate Flashes than engaging in deadly combat with villainous enemies. At least your foes die superdramatic deaths when the lead finally catches up to them, thanks to an over-the-top use of rag-doll physics.

Visuals add to the problems. Everything in the game is indistinct. Character and vehicle models seem half finished and even oddly surreal, as dying enemies often briefly morph into Mr. Fantastic and flail arms long enough to drag on the ground when dying. Buildings are completely barren. And the satellite-styled overhead map is tough to read, because it consists of mashes of green terrain and colored blobs representing enemy soldiers and objectives.

Maps are often overly long and convoluted, with a lot of dead ends and odd twists and turns making it fairly easy to get lost. Nighttime missions are so pitch black that cranking up the in-game gamma setting does little to lighten the gloom. In the daytime, when you can sort of figure out where you should be going, bloom effects are so extreme that it sometimes looks like everything has already been nuked. A bigger obstacle to getting around properly is the lack of an on-demand save option. Here, there are just console-style automatic saves at checkpoints, and these are often very far apart. Sometimes you have to pass two or three mission objectives just to get a checkpoint.

Loveless was never one to waste time, so he spent a few spare moments on the chopper to North Korea updating his MySpace page.

Last and least, even though it's ridiculous to complain about a terrible game not being long enough, it should still be noted that DMZ: North Korea has an abbreviated solo campaign and no multiplayer. Even if you can manage to struggle through the entire game (Magic 8 Ball says: "Very doubtful"), you're still going to wrap up your violations of North Korea's sovereignty in no more than six or seven hours. The only thing that will keep you in the glorious republic any longer than that are the bugs that occasionally lock up the game and force a retreat to the desktop and a manual shutdown.

Here's the point in bad-game reviews where a few more putdowns are usually stuffed in. But if you've taken the time to read this far, you've already given DMZ: North Korea more of your life than it warrants, so let's cut this short and just wrap things up. Oh, OK. Here's one more--you can't skip any of the cutscenes, and there are a lot of them.


Pictures of the DMZ in South Korea and North Korea

The DMZ Peace Train carries South Korean soldiers and tourists from Seoul to train terminals closest to the DMZ. Each cabin has a different theme—peace, love, and harmony—which were designed to inspire feelings of hope and reconciliation.

An army of ossifying bodies rests unseen beneath the soil that divides two Koreas. Unwittingly entombed by the tides of war, flesh and bone have faded into the earth and mingled with the roots—their nationalities rendered unrecognizable by the passage of time.

Stretching 150 miles along the 38th parallel, the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was established in 1953 as a buffer zone between the warring communist north and capitalist south. Today, the DMZ proliferates in popular culture as one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world and a living vestige of the Cold War era—it’s also a tourist attraction.

Though they are now known as two distinct, intensely polarized nations, for more than a thousand years Korea was a unified territory. In 1945, at the conclusion of World War II, the United States and Soviet Union partitioned the peninsula at the 38th parallel with little regard to the sentiments of the Korean people. Arbitrarily divided by ideologically opposed, interloping regimes, tensions between the North and South soon escalated into the three-year Korean War that ravaged the population. On July 27, 1953, the DMZ was established as part of ceasefire negotiated between UN and communist forces. A peace treaty was never signed.

The Other Korea

Tourists have long been fascinated by borders, and Korea's is no exception.

“[They] recognize borderlands as symbolic cultural landscapes loaded with iconic sites and attractions that reflect the public memory,” according to the International Journal of Tourism Research. “This memory is often focused on the past or ongoing wars, or territorial conflicts that have formed the border.”

Tourism can act as a force of peace: a mechanism that promotes empathy and supports reconciliation processes between nations. In addition to fostering cultural exchange, research suggests that countries with open and sustainable tourism industries enjoy higher levels of peace, economic prosperity, and resilience.

But the highly regulated movement of Korean nationals on both sides of the DMZ may limit the peace-building opportunities that are traditionally associated with tourism.

“South Koreans and North Koreans don’t get to go to the other side—it’s only someone like me that can go on both sides and can actually see two perspectives,” says photojournalist David Guttenfelder, who has traveled to North Korea more than 40 times and documented both sides of the DMZ. “The division is more than a physical boundary—it limits imagination and empathy and connection.”

This strict control of the border along with the careful curation of museums and war memorials has allowed each side to write its own version of history unchecked—and its own version of the other Korea.

“Both sides claim the other started the war. Both sides go to great lengths to talk about the monstrous atrocities that the other side committed,” Guttenfelder says. “People use the DMZ to broadcast propaganda, but I think you can easily say the opposite. A lot of people use the DMZ as a positive place, where families go and visit memorials and tie ribbons. It’s become way more than just a border. It’s operating in this very big symbolic way, both good and bad.”

The Accidental Oasis

Six decades of wind and rain have cleansed the gore from the landscape, and sheets of wildflowers bloom where fallen soldiers once lay—remnants of a tragic past, now made beautiful by nature.

Hundreds of thousands of heavily armed soldiers are deployed in the area surrounding the zone, but the interior has remained virtually untouched since the armistice was signed. Forests and mountains decimated by war slowly regenerated in the absence of human hands, forging one of the most unique wildlife preserves on Earth. Some 3,500 plants, mammals, birds, and fish have been identified in the DMZ and Civilian Control Zone (CCZ), including more than 80 endangered and protected species.

The division is more than a physical boundary—it limits imagination and empathy and connection.

David Guttenfelder

As North and South Korea continue to vacillate between periods of hostility and hope, some believe the common goal of conservation could foster trans-border movement through ecotourism. In 1998, the Geumgang Mountain Tourism project took nearly two million South Korean tourists to North Korea’s mountains over the course of a decade during an unprecedented period of cooperation.

“There were people who have not heard from or seen their relatives in the north for 50 years. These people took the opportunity to go to North Korea so they were closer to their relatives,” says Walter Keats, president of Asia Pacific Travel. But under the careful watch of the military, most people never interacted with North Koreans, and very few were reunited with family members.

In 2008, a guard shot and killed a South Korean tourist who stepped out of bounds, and the border rapidly went from porous to impermeable within days. Cooperation between the two Koreas has steadily deteriorated ever since. The North Korean nuclear crisis now dominates the international conversation, and tourism initiatives to connect the divided nations have all but ceased to exist.

Tourism as a path to peace

Though interaction between North and South Koreans is negligible and propaganda rife, some believe tourism can still exert a positive influence, particularly within the Hermit Kingdom.

“Because we have no communication whatsoever, it’s very hard for North Korean citizens to have a positive impression of the rest of the world,” Keats says. “All they know is what their government tells them. The vast majority still think that [Americans] started the war and that we’re evil.” Small amounts of exposure to outsiders can have a peace-building effect over the long term, according to Keats.

But those opportunities are also dwindling. As of September 1, 2017, the U.S. State Department restricted travel to North Korea for U.S. citizens. This week, a White House official also announced that President Donald Trump will skip the "cliche" DMZ visit during his November tour of Asia.

“It’s important for people to see this [border]," disagrees Keats. “It’s why you should see Hiroshima, the Holocaust Museum, and Auschwitz—to witness what people do to each other.”

David Guttenfelder is a National Geographic photographer focusing on geopolitical conflict, conservation, and culture. Follow him on Instagram @dguttenfelder.

A Rare Look Into the Lives of North Koreans No Western photographer has had better access to the secretive country of North Korea than David Guttenfelder, who has made more than 40 trips to the country. Guttenfelder takes the stage to share stories from his time documenting life in North Korea.


How a North Korean soldier defected across the DMZ

Image copyright AFP Image caption The border area between North and South Korea is heavily protected

A North Korean soldier defected to the South by crossing the heavily protected Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating the two sides.

This is the fourth defection by a North Korean soldier via the DMZ in the past three years.

But how do you get over one of the world's most heavily guarded strips of land without being spotted?

What happened?

The soldier was shot and injured by his own military as he crossed to the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the village of Panmunjom.

North Korean troops shot at him 40 times, and he was hit five times - but he made it across and was found under a pile of leaves.

The JSA is the only part of the DMZ where soldiers from the north and south stand side by side. South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported he was a low-ranking soldier.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The fortified border is almost impenetrable

His defection came six months after the last. In June, another North Korean soldier approached a South Korean guard post to surrender.

Before then, a North Korean soldier defected via the DMZ in September 2016 and before that, in June 2015.

In 2012 two soldiers from the North made it through the dense security net and handed themselves over.

Is it dangerous to cross the DMZ?

Yes. The DMZ is a strip of land 250km (155 miles) long and 4km (2.5 miles) wide that runs across the Korean Peninsula, heavily mined and fortified with barbed wire, rows of surveillance cameras and electric fencing.

It is also closely guarded by tens of thousands of troops on both sides, making it almost impossible to walk across.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Three defectors successfully crossed the military demarcation line in the last three years

Swathes of bare land are littered with large rocks and anti-personnel landmines.

If the North Korean military spot movements across the area, it is likely that they will open fire.

The border and its fortifications have been in place since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953. North and South Korea remain technically at war as the fighting did not end with a peace treaty.

Since he took power in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to have ordered the tightening of border controls between the two sides and with China, including by laying more landmines.

In recent months, North Korea has also flown drones over the border, mainly for reconnaissance purposes in the wake of South Korea's deployment of the US anti-missile defence system, known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).

How often do North Koreans defect?

On average, around 1,000 people from the North flee to the South each year but only a handful picked this highly dangerous escape route across the military demarcation line (MDL) during the last decade.

The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea has started to drop. From January to August 2017, 780 North Koreans escaped to South Korea, a fall of 13% compared with the previous year, according to officials in Seoul.

Successful defection cases prove that it can be done. However nobody knows the number of unsuccessful attempts made by desperate defectors-to-be.

If spotted and arrested by the North Korean military, those trying to cross the DMZ would certainly be taken to a detention centre to be interrogated. They could be tried and sentenced to lengthy terms in labour camps.

One of the two North Korean defectors in 2012 had to kill his platoon commanders before fleeing.

But the crossing is sanctioned by both sides, not only the North.

In July 2012, South Korean officials arrested an activist, Ro Su-hui, after he walked back across the border from visiting the North to promote reunification.

The first South Korean unification activist to cross the border was Lim Su-kyung, who visited North Korea in 1989 and was jailed after returning home.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Both sides blast music and propaganda across their shared border

What happens in the case of successful defection?

Defectors usually approach South Korean border guard posts to express their intention to defect. But there are also telephones on the South Korean side so those who have fled from the North can call seeking help.

Most North Korean defectors choose to flee using easier routes than over the DMZ.

Seoul says more than 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the end of the Korean War, the majority via China, which has the longest border with the North.

Some defectors travel on to countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the hope of resettling in South Korea or a third country.

After reaching the South, most North Korean defectors are first held at an interrogation facility to screen for potential spies and then put through a state resettlement programme.

They can get help from the government and there are also non-profit and non-governmental organisations that seek to make the transition easier for them. However this is a process that often proves not only difficult but also traumatic.

Some escapees find that escaping North Korea is just the start of their journey. They then have to try to cope with the brutality of the regime, and the years of physical and psychological hardship they faced.


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