Or at least, it’s not the tour attraction in Korea that companies will lead you to believe. It’s called something else. The DMZ is the De-Militarized Zone and it is the border that cuts Korea in half by North and South Korea. It gets a lot of attention in the media, so a lot of people request to go there through tour companies. Just about all tourists going to Korea for the first time will believe that the DMZ tour will take you to see North Korean and South Korean soldiers standing across from each other at the border staring down one another in a game to see who flinches first.
Yet tour companies will lead you astray and show you something else. What people are WANTING to see is actually the JSA Tour. That is where you see the soldiers and go inside the blue MAC building where you are technically in North Korea. JSA stands for Joint Security Area and it is the tour that people are usually thinking in the minds of the depicted standoff between North and South. You should really make sure you clarify that you want the JSA Tour and not the DMZ Tour.
The DMZ Tour itself is not a bad tour at all. In fact, a lot of people enjoy it. You get to see Kaesong, a city in North Korea as well as Dorasan Station. The highlight of the tour of course is going down the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. During the 70’s and 80’s, North Korea dug 4 tunnels underneath the DMZ spread widely across the border to one day plot a surprise attack on us. We were tipped off about this and caught them down there. They immediately retreated while scrambling to paint the tunnels black. The reason for this is because they wanted us to think that they were innocently mining for “black” coal.
The reason why tour companies push the DMZ tour and somewhat mask the JSA tour is because there are 1) higher margins, 2) faster and less strict visa process and 3) easier for their guides to go into DMZ.
The JSA Tour is run by the United Nations and there are strict regulations and offers no flexibility for tour companies to upsell their services. You meet at a rendezvous point in Seoul, get on a bus with a group tour, see JSA and come back to the original meeting point. All set at one price.
The DMZ Tour has some regulations, but can be somewhat flexible compared to JSA. It is also a group tour, but tour companies can drive their customers to Imjingak Park from Seoul in which they can charge extra margins for transportation. Since they control the transport, they can also control what restaurant they go to for lunch. Another source of revenue is that they can charge a margin for sending in a guide with you. The DMZ Tour doesn’t really have a guide, but a driver and a pre-recorded introduction of every place you visit before going. Having a guide accompany you definitely has value as it makes the tour semi-private and can give you more insights as to what you are witnessing there at the time.
Again, the point of the post is not to downplay the DMZ Tour at all. The point is to make sure that you are aware that there are differences and that tour operators can be sly in what tour they market to you. Both are great tours in their own right. Just know that the DMZ Tour is NOT the DMZ Tour that you are thinking.
If you are interested in signing up for either the JSA Tour or the DMZ Tour, you can do so for either right here.