Many tours visit the Diamond Mountains.
President Clinton dubbed the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which
separates North and South Korea as “the scariest place on earth”
for good reason. The 2½-mile-wide, 154-mile-long strip of land,
which dissects the Korean Peninsula, divides 1 million heavily
armed North Korean troops from 600,000 South Korean troops, plus
37,000 U.S. troops backed by the full weight of the American
While it is indeed “scary” in the geopolitical sense, it also
provides for one of the most fascinating and educational tours you
Located less than 40 miles from Seoul, day trips to the DMZ at
Panmunjom are well planned and economical. English-speaking tours
usually start from the Lotte Hotel in the South’s capital and cost
less than $100, including a traditional Korean lunch. Because of
the somber and historical nature of the place, tennis shoes, jeans,
shorts and other casual wear are not allowed. All tourists must
carry their passports and should confirm the tour one day before
departure, since the DMZ tour is subject to change or cancellation
without prior notice due to various meetings, training exercises or
There are a few tour operators and itineraries available for the
A Troubled History
Stare down: A South Korean soldier
in the foreground keeps an eye
on his North Korean counterpart.
Tours begin with a briefing from an American soldier, and there
are plenty of opportunities to peer at North Korean guard posts
atop rolling hills outside.
The village of Panmunjom was, for the most part, obliterated by
the Korean War, yet the name remains intact. Simple, one-story
huts, scrubbed and freshly painted in the shade of baby blue that
matches the U.N. flag, sit in a tiny valley surrounded by guard
towers and observation posts manned on the other side by North
After signing the Armistice Agreement in 1953, Panmunjom was
designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) and the headquarters of
the Military Armistice Commission under the shared management of
the United Nations Command and North Korea. The military, economic,
political and humanitarian discussions that take place in this zone
have helped keep peace, however fragile, for more than half a
Deadly incidents have occurred in the JSA that have threatened
to escalate into a full-scale shooting war.
On Aug. 18, 1976, near the so-called Bridge of No Return where
prisoners of war from both sides were allowed to return to their
places of origin at the end of the war, North Korean soldiers beat
U.S. Army Capt. Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett to death with
clubs and the blunt ends of axes. Bonifas and Barrett had led a
detail of soldiers to trim the foliage of a Poplar tree because it
was obstructing the view between two guard posts.
While Secretary of State Henry Kissinger advocated punitive
military action, a carefully limited response was carried out.
Three days after the deadly attack, with American and South Korean
troops on high alert, American and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces
carried out Operation Paul Bunyan, completely removing the
To minimize the chances of future conflicts in the JSA, both
sides agreed to separate the sentries and split the area in half at
the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).
Another fascinating phenomenon of the DMZ is the creation of
massive tunnels running underground in preparation for an attack.
The third of five known incursion tunnels was discovered in October
1978, just 27 miles from Seoul. Carved out of bedrock at a depth of
about 240 feet, the approximately six-foot-high by seven-foot-wide
tunnel penetrates nearly three-tenths of a mile past the MDL. The
tunnel is large enough to have a full division pass though it in an
hour and is only a little over a mile from a key outpost defending
the Munsan corridor leading to Seoul.
There is plenty to see in North Korea beyond the DMZ, as well
although getting to it can be a challenge.
The eminent Chinese poet Su Dong-po, of the Song Dynasty,
lavished praise on North Korea’s Geumgangsan Mountains, writing,
“If I were to die the day after seeing Goryeo Geumgangsan, I would
have no regrets.”
Since 1998, tours in Korean to the Geumgangsan Diamond Mountains
on the east coast have provided visitors with the unique
opportunity to cross the DMZ and visit a magnificent
pinnacle-dotted group of mountains. Visitors will also get to dine
at a North Korean restaurant and enjoy a circus performance as
Beyond this excursion, American citizens are only occasionally
granted entrance to North Korea. This usually happens only during
the Arirang Mass Games, a spectacular event in Pyongyang featuring
thousands of gymnasts performing mass synchronized routines. Most
visits to the North also include tours to Kaesong and the northern
side of the DMZ. While the U.S. government has no formal
relationship with North Korea, any American tourists interested in
visiting the country or their travel agents should be sure to
familiarize themselves with the entry requirements and general
advisories issued by the U.S. State Department.