Across the Line

Tours of the DMZ make for a one-of-a-kind day trip

By: Mark Edward Harris

This is the first Image
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 military.

While it is indeed “scary” in the geopolitical sense, it also provides for one of the most fascinating and educational tours you can find.

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 VIP visits.

There are a few tour operators and itineraries available for the DMZ.

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Stare down: A South Korean soldier
in the foreground keeps an eye
on his North Korean counterpart.
A Troubled History
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 Korean soldiers.

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 century.

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 tree.

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 well.

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.


Hotel Lotte
Seoul, South Korea

Korean Tourism Organization
800-868-7567; 323-634-0280 (in Los Angeles)

Koryo Tours: Featuring tours to North Korea

Panmunjom Travel Center

Mark Edward Harris’ new book of photos, Inside North Korea (Chronicle Books), explores life on the other side of the DMZ.

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