During the trip to South Korea, our group also visited the “Demilitarized Zone” (DMZ) dividing Korea into North and South.
The DMZ is de jure still a front line in a war because no peace treaty has been signed between North Korea and South Korea yet. The DMZ was just thought as an armistice line until a peace treaty would have ended the Korean War and possibly reunited Korea. But this never happened and the two Korean states went on different trajectories, turning the DMZ into a border between two states that could not be any more different.
On the day we wanted to visit the DMZ with our group, the “Joint Security Area” at Panmunjeom was closed, so we decided instead to take the DMZ train to get to the DMZ. Our experience might help you to take the DMZ Train.
Chaos at the station…
Anyone who has been to South Korean before knows that Koreans are generally well-organised. Getting information about going to the DMZ by train is probably the one exception that proves the rule. I was surprised that information about the DMZ Train online is somewhat sparse so we just went to Seoul Station on Saturday morning. Seoul Station is huge, by the way and you will encounter many soldiers kissing goodbye to their loved ones.
After queueing for 20 minutes, the ticket counter at Seoul station initially told us they could not sell us the train tickets because we would need to buy a DMZ tour package and sent us to the tourist information. The tourist information did not know how to buy the tickets and sent us to a travel agency outside of the station – which turned out to be closed on weekends. When we asked again at the tourist information, they sent us back to the ticket counter – where we then got the information that we could indeed buy tickets just for the DMZ train. No one knew where we could possibly buy the DMZ tour packages. We decided to risk it and just bought 20 train tickets to the DMZ and back.
At Seoul Station, the DMZ Train is listed on the departure board like all other trains, but without any indication from which track it leaves. You just have to search and look at the departure board on each platform to find the right one. Our train left from track 14 on that day.
Even though the DMZ Train is just a local train, you will get seat reservations when buying a ticket – and you are well advised to sit in the reserved seat at least until all passengers are on board. Our group received seat reservations all over the train and wanted to sit together but we soon found out that Koreans take these seat reservations very seriously…
…but it’s actually all quite easy
Once we were on the train, it turned out that everything is actually very well organised. The staff on board was super friendly and competent and made sure we got all necessary forms and information once the train had left Seoul. On the inside, the DMZ train is colourful and even has a small bistro.
So, in essence, you can just go to the train station, buy a ticket to Dorasan for the DMZ Train and board the train and everything else will be taken care of. Just don’t forget your passport and cash for the DMZ tour and lunch. The schedule of the DMZ Train can be found on the Korail website.
No advance reservation was nevessary. The tickets can even be bought at ticket machines. The staff on board the train will hand out a form to apply for entrance into the military-controlled area at the DMZ. A few minutes later, we could buy the DMZ tour packages on board the train. The DMZ tour package is very well organised and takes you to a peace park, Dora observatory, a North Korean infiltration tunnel and even includes a lunch stop around noon in Tongilchon village.
Between a frontline and a theme park
The visit to the DMZ is, well, unsettling on many levels. For about half an hour, the train travels through the outskirts of Seoul and it is hard to imagine that you are about to enter the most heavily militarised area in the world. But once outside of Seoul, the first signs emerge: anti-tank barriers line the streets and railway lines. At Imjingang, all passengers must disembark the train and have their passports checked. Right after Imjingang station, the train enters the fenced-off military-controlled area and passes Imjin river, right next to the ruins of the old railway bridge. To add some emotion to the situation, dramatic music is played from the train speakers.
On all train stations along the line, the distance to Pyeongyang is indicated, just like North Korean motorway signs show directions to Seoul. Shortly after passing the river, the train pulls into the huge Dorasan station. The station was constructed as a border checkpoint, complete with passport and customs checkpoints like an international airport. In reality, only one local train per day stops. After getting off the train and onto the tour busses, you will see a huge border checkpoint built for crossing the border into the North Korean Kaesong industrial zone. It was closed in 2016. As it stands, the unused and meticulously kept border control facilities look more like a propaganda exercise than anything else.
Once on the tourist tour bus, you are first presented a “Peace Park” with colourful artworks dedicated to Korean reunification, and tanks. Just how unbreachable the DMZ is becomes visible at the second stop, Dorasan observatory. Here you can take a look at Kaesong in North Korea through binoculars and take photos of the actual, 4km-wide Demilitarized Zone. The binoculars cost a few Won but no one stopped me just using the cordoned-off free binoculars for military use.
The tour buses make a stop in Tongilchon (“unification”) village for lunch, where you can get a good lunch for just a few Won. The village itself is a strange sight. Appearently, the village has about 500 inhabitants, but when we were there, it honestly looked derelict. The last stop is the “Third Infiltration Tunnel”, a tunnel dug by North Korea to potentially invade the South. Througout the whole tour, it felt like being in some kind of theme park, but visiting the tunnel increased this feeling. In order to enable tourists to visit the tunnel, South Korea essentially “finished” the tunnel by building comfortable access tunnels and even a shuttle train taking tourists into the tunnel. In general, photo opportunities and selfie corners abound everywhere in the DMZ.
Once the tour busses bring you back to Dorasan station you have just a bit of time left to visit the souvenir shop before everyone has to board the DMZ Train back to Seoul. I took one last stroll to the other end of the station, where a simple stop sign tells you not to walk any further. There, the DMZ and the border to North Korea lie just behind the corner. On the way back, you can not help but notice that the DMZ actually cuts through some of the best-preserved landscapes in Korea, because it is off-limits to big housing and infrastructure projects.
Taking the DMZ Train is probably one of the easiest and most hassle-free ways to visit the DMZ. Like elsewhere in the DMZ, you should not forget that you are presented a one-sided story about the division of Korea and it sometimes feels like a theme park. But keeping this in mind, it is definitely worth a visit.
While you are here: view more photos of Korea