Sign Up for Our Monthly Asia Newsletter
On April 27, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.
In addition to its economic and cultural implications, unification will have very real effects on tourism to Korea, specifically with regards to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a neutral buffer area in the Gyeonggi-do province of South Korea where the two leaders negotiated the historic declaration.
Because the DMZ may soon have a different significance than it does today, now is an ideal time to visit. Following are a few must-see stops for travelers visiting the DMZ before unification takes place.
The traditional starting point of a DMZ tour is Imjingak, a park that was built to comfort refugees and those whose families were stranded behind the North Korean border as a result of the Korean War. Several landmarks are scattered across the site, including Mangbaedan, an altar for the millions of families who were separated from each other in the decades following World War II.
Behind the memorial is Freedom Bridge, where more than 12,000 prisoners of war crossed the Imjingang River from North Korea to South Korea. There’s also the National Memorial Hall for Korean War Abductees, as well as a nonoperational steam-engine train car that was caught in the crossfires of the conflict.
After Imjingak, travelers can the take a brief bus ride to the Third Tunnel of Aggression, one of four known tunnels built by North Korea to infiltrate the south. In 1978, the South Korean military discovered the mile-long tunnel before it could be completed. Located fewer than 30 miles from Seoul, it would have been long enough for 30,000 armed soldiers to pass through in under an hour. Today, visitors can put on hard hats and take an open-air tram or walk down to explore the tunnel more closely.
For a higher vantage point of North Korea, travelers are encouraged to visit the top of Dora Observatory. Originally built in the 1980s, the structure provides a view of Gaeseong, North Korea. On a clear day, one can even see a bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung, the first Supreme Leader of North Korea, through a telescope.
Meanwhile, Dorasan Station stands about half a mile from the border between North and South Korea, on the Gyeongui Line. Recently restored but unused, the railway connects the two Koreas and will resume service after unification. A huge sign in the station declares that Dorasan is “not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North.”
Although Dorasan Station is one of the more modern developments in the DMZ, many points of interest have been remarkably well-preserved due to military restrictions in the area. In addition to the network of public sculptures, museums, memorials and relics, visitors can also get a taste of local life. The area around Tongilchon (which is also known as “Unification Village”) has yielded optimal farmland for the production of high-elevation herbs, sunbudu (uncurdled bean curd) and maeuntang, a type of spicy fish soup.
I recommend a stop at the local market, where travelers can get a taste of the community that straddles the border between North Korea and South Korea, which remains divided — for now.