If you find yourself in the South Korean capital (or nearby), a DMZ + JSA tour from Seoul is a must. Why? I mean, aren’t you even a tad bit curious to look into North Korea, the world’s most elusive country? Besides that, if you are remotely interested in human history, a DMZ +JSA tour has a lot to offer in terms of understanding the past, current conflict and a hope for future reunification of the two Koreas. With plenty of DMZ + JSA tours to pick from, it can get overwhelming to pick the right one. This is where I hope to help out. In this guide to DMZ + JSA tour, I will cover the difference between just DMZ and DMZ + JSA tour, the cost, the itinerary and the best tour company (IMO) to go with.
- DMZ + JSA Tour: But first, what is the DMZ and JSA?
- DMZ + JSA Tour: Which tour company to go with?
- DMZ + JSA Tour: How do I know that the DMZ + JSA tour is running at the time I want to visit?
- DMZ + JSA Tour: How much is the cost?
- DMZ + JSA Tour: How early should I book?
- DMZ + JSA Tour: What is the Itinerary?
- DMZ + JSA Tour: Is there a dress code?
- DMZ + JSA Tour: Are all nationalities allowed to participate ?
- DMZ + JSA Tour: Important Dos and Don’ts
- DMZ + JSA Tour: What souvenirs to get?
- DMZ + JSA Tour: Final verdict/what to expect?
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DMZ + JSA Tour: But first, what is the DMZ and JSA?
DMZ stands for Demilitarised Zone. After the end of the Korean war (1953), Korean Armistice Agreement created the DMZ between North and South Korea. The DMZ is a 4km wide stretch of land across the Korean Peninsula; 2km each on both sides from the border that divides the two Koreas.
The JSA stands for Joint Security Area. JSA is inside the DMZ and literally on the border. It is also known as the Truce Village of Panmunjom. From November 2018 until March 2019, visiting the JSA was closed due to ongoing negotiations between the two countries. As of April 2019, certain tours will take you to the JSA but you may not have access to all the places typically included in the tour.
DMZ + JSA Tour: Which tour company to go with?
There are a plethora of companies offering this tour. A Google search for DMZ + JSA tour will show you plenty of tours on Viator and Veltra. I would advise you to not book with them because the price would be substantially higher on these third party booking websites. I would also recommend against booking with your accommodation as you do not know which tour companies they work with. A fellow backpacker booked through our hostel. Though he paid the same as me and the agency even picked him, the tour itself was rushed. Worse still, the group was taken to a Ginseng Centre; a tourist trap and a way for the tour company to earn commission. This unnecessary stop ate into valuable time one could have spent at the DMZ.
Keeping all that in mind, I would highly recommend going with Koridoor Tours. They have extremely knowledgeable guides, do not make unnecessary stops, run on time and have really good buses. Furthermore, their customer service is impeccable. Note that, I am not affiliated with Koridoor. I am making this suggestion purely based on my excellent personal experience.
Alternatively, you can check out GetYourGuide, as occasionally they offer good discounts on tours (affiliate link):
DMZ + JSA Tour: How do I know that the DMZ + JSA tour is running at the time I want to visit?
If you plan on just visiting the DMZ, they are seldom cancelled as you are technically not getting much closer to North Korea. Access to the JSA does close time and again (as it was till March 2019). The best way to confirm this is by contacting Koridoor and asking them if the JSA tours are taking place on your intended dates. Koridoor actually works closely with the military. So, they have the right and up-to-date information. There are many tour companies that will sell the DMZ + JSA tour, knowing fully well that the JSA is currently inaccessible. And, on the day of the tour, they will tell you that ‘Oops the JSA is closed today.” Then, they will simply take you to the half day DMZ tour, which costs half the price of DMZ + JSA tour. A friend of mine had experienced this (she had booked through Veltra).
DMZ + JSA Tour: How much is the cost?
A full day DMZ + JSA Tour costs USD 92 (KRW 96,600) with Koridoor, while a half-day DMZ tour costs USD 42 (KRW 46,200). This is the cheapest I have found after a lot of intensive research. Normally, DMZ + JSA tours, if booked through Viator or Veltra, can cost over USD 130 to 150. This is absurd. As a rule of thumb, you should not pay more than USD 100 for a DMZ + JSA tour, and USD 50 for a DMZ tour.
Some of these expensive tours will include the option of lunch. It is absolutely not worth paying so much more for lunch. My tour with Koridoor did not include lunch but we did stop at a military canteen with buffet style lunch (+ free filtered water). The cost was KRW 11,000 ( ~ USD 10). The buffet included Korean bulgogi, fried rice, fried chicken, fresh fruits, vegetable stew, kimchi, waffles and drinkable yogurt. Simple, but pretty good. You can also bring your own lunch/snack.
DMZ + JSA Tour: How early should I book?
You must book the tour (and make payment) a minimum of 4 days before your intended date of visit. Some tour companies will ask you to book and pay at least a week ahead. This is because your details will be send ahead of your travel for approval from the military. That said, DMZ + JSA tour sells out very quickly, especially if you want to go with a reputable company. Therefore, I would advise booking a month ahead to avoid disappointment.
At the interest of full disclosure, many do book the tour just a day ahead through their accommodation. But, that is only possible with the DMZ tour. The DMZ+JSA tour would require more than a day’s notice if the tour company is to follow official protocol. You might still be able to book a day ahead but that means your tour agent is doing something he shouldn’t be doing.
DMZ + JSA Tour: What is the Itinerary?
Half Day DMZ Tour Itinenary: This tour is for 6 hours. Normally, departure times are at 8am and 2pm. Koridoor Tours asked us to reach their office by 7.45am and we promptly left by 8am. I was staying at the Hongdae area, and the tour office was a short metro ride away. If your tour company is picking you up, expect it to be anytime between 7 to 8am. All tour companies stop at the exact same places (albiet in different order). So, if you are on a DMZ tour, expect to see:
- The Unification Bridge or Bridge of No Return – This is where the POWs were exchanged at the end of the war.
- The Third Tunnel of Aggression – So far, South Korea has discovered 4 tunnels built by North Korea that cross into the southern border. The third tunnel is open to the public, and this is the one you’ll visit. South Korea claims it was made to attack them. While North Korea claims that it was a coal mine. They even rubbed the tunnel walls with coal dust. Seriously. The tunnel is quite deep and narrow, so if you are claustrophobic. AVOID. I did go all the way down, but hated it especially because of the narrow space and the loud and ill-behaved group of Chinese tourists behind me.
- Dora Observatory: Here you can use the binoculars on the roof to look into North Korea. Don’t expect HD quality views but it’s still pretty cool. You can see the North Korean flag. And, Kijŏngdong; a North Korean village inside the DMZ. North Korea calls Kijŏngdong the ‘Peace Village.’ While South Korea (and rest of the world) calls it ‘Propaganda Village.’ Fun fact: There is a village on the South Korean side too called Daeseong-dong. The people from this village are exempted from otherwise compulsory military service and from paying taxes.
- Dorasan Station: This is the last station in South Korea on a railway line that connects the two Koreas. The trains between North and South no longer run (obviously). The station still stands and is open to tourists. You can go on the platform by paying an extra KRW 1,000. The station and the platform resonates with message and hope of reunification. Fun fact: There is a part (piece?) of the Berlin wall on the platform. One of the left side of the wall, it states the years it took to reunify Germany. While on the right side, the clock for reunification for North and South is still ticking.
- Imjingak Park: Not all tours go here. But, it is still a common stop. It is, as the name suggest, a park. It contains various monuments remembering the Korean War. And a small random amusement park (Why?). It does have a Korean shaped pool, which is kind of cool. I would say, you won’t miss much if this is skipped.
- Lunch Stop: As I mentioned before, we stopped for lunch in a military canteen, which was quite good.
The half-day tour, returns to Seoul by 2-2.30pm depending on the traffic.
Full Day DMZ + JSA Tour Itinerary: This tour lasts for 8.5 hours. If your tour company says 9-10 hours, that’s because they will be stopping at a Pine Oil or Ginseng Centre. Koridoor asks you to report to their office by 7am with your passport. They leave sharp at 7.30am. The itinerary will include all the aforementioned stops in the DMZ tour and a visit to the JSA. In all likelihood, the tour will take you straight to the JSA first. At the JSA, you can expect to see:
Camp BONIFAS: The UN controlled military post is where you will be explained about the JSA. They will also brief you about the protocol that you must follow during your visit.
- Freedom House: Built in 1998 as a place for families separated by the border after the Korean War to meet and unite. North Korea, so far, has not permitted these meetings.
- Military Armistice Commission Conference Room: The JSA consists of three blue army barrack like structures. You are allowed to enter one, which serves as a ‘Conference Room.’ One half of the room is in North Korea and the other in South Korea. A table in the middle of the room sits right on the border. On the other side of the room, you can see North Korean soldiers standing guard.
- UN Guard Post 3: The closest guard post to North Korea. Not all tours go here, so be sure to check.
You will be back in Seoul by 3.30-4pm depending on the traffic.
PRO TIP: The Korean War Memorial is a must visit if you want to know more about not just the North/South conflict but the Korean Peninsula’s relationship with war dating several centuries back. If you go with Koridoor, the war memorial is a 5 minute walk from their office. So consider dropping by here on your return. The museum is free. It is open daily (except Mondays) from 9.30am to 6 pm; last entry 5.30pm. I went here right after my DMZ tour. If you plan on going on a different day, do try to take the free guided tour. English tours happen twice daily at 10am and 2pm.
DMZ + JSA Tour: Is there a dress code?
Yes, there is a pretty strict dress code for the JSA tour. Click here, and scroll down to No. 10 on the list of FAQs. This covers everything you cannot wear to the JSA. DMZ does not have a dress code. But still, avoid wearing clothes with offensive words on it, or with drawings/cartoons related to North/South Korea. Just dress down with a basic T-shirt and trousers and you should be okay.
DMZ + JSA Tour: Are all nationalities allowed to participate ?
From South Korean side of the border, all nationalities (except North Koreans) can participate in the DMZ + JSA tour. There is a lot of misleading information floating around about many nationalities not allowed to visit the JSA. This is not true. However, some nationalities need to book a tour sooner and send in a coloured scanned copy of their passport to their tour agency. Even South Koreans can visit the JSA with a much earlier notice and other arrangements. Here is the list of countries whose nationals have to send in their passport copies prior to visit. If you are still in doubt, contact Koridoor Tours (korid[email protected]) as they will give you the correct information. Don’t worry, you do not have to book with them.
DMZ + JSA Tour: Important Dos and Don’ts
- Carry your passport. This is a must. Otherwise, you cannot join the tour (and no refunds)!
- Follow instructions of your guide, especially at the JSA, to the dot. Do not take pictures if you have been asked not to, and do not touch things!
- Do not take pictures of South Korean soldiers. Just don’t. Most of them are just young boys getting a low salary and doing their mandatory military service. They are people with right to privacy.
- Be on time. At every stop, your guide will ask you to return at a set time. Please don’t be a selfish careless prick by showing up late.
- Focus less on taking pictures and more on understanding the history and present of the place where you are at.
- Children under 11 are not allowed in the JSA. If you are travelling with anyone younger than 11, consider doing a DMZ only tour.
DMZ + JSA Tour: What souvenirs to get?
There aren’t a lot of souvenir shops but our guide suggested we should try to get our hands on North Korean alcohol or stamps. As these come from North Korea, their availability can cease any moment. I wanted to buy stamps but they were all out. Boo!
DMZ + JSA Tour: Final verdict/what to expect?
If you are looking to see pretty sights only, this isn’t the tour for you. What you will see won’t exactly ‘wow’ you if you only care for the visual element. That said, you don’t need to know an awful lot about the Korean War to make the most of the tour. There is a lot of information on boards available at every location. Nonetheless, it is important to go with a reputable tour company precisely because you would need a knowledgeable tour guide to give you all the key facts about the history and the present situation of the sights you would be visiting. Lastly, even if you do not care about the whole North/South Korea issue, it is one of the most politically unique places to visit. If you have the chance, go!
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