Get up close and personal with North Korea

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north korea dmz
The JSA buildings between South and North Korea is the most guarded border in the world

Tourism in North Korea is tightly controlled by the North Korean government. But with the North Korea – South Korea relationship getting friendlier than ever, you may feel like getting close to North Korea.

Here are several options to get close to – or even step into – North Korea.

1. Visit the DMZ that separates North Korea and South Korea

This solution is the easiest. If you’re visiting Seoul, the DMZ is only about 50 kilometers away from you.

DMZ (or Demilitarized Zone) is the 4-kilometers zone that separates South Korea and North Korea (2 kilometers on each side of the border).

The DMZ itself is an interesting place to visit. It includes landmarks such as the Dorasan Station– a train station that connects North Korea and South Korea, and has been efficiently operating for a year before tensions between the two countries turned it into a station only visited by tourists.

Dora-station_north korea
Dorasan Station, “The first station toward the North”, rather than “the last one from the South”

Unexpectedly, the DMZ also became a wildlife paradise as most of the area is actually off-limits for humans.

The DMZ also includes infiltration tunnelsbuilt by North Korea in a plan to invade South Korea, and the Dora Observatorywhich is able to actually see a few kilometers into North Korea.

The DMZ can be visited independently. If this is the option you select, we advise you to prepare your visit by selecting the landmarks you want to see, and checking which transportation systems you can use (individual cars are forbidden in most parts of the DMZ, but options such as buses or the DMZ Peace Train exist). Also, don’t forget your passport at the hotel. 

North Korea-Flagpole dora observatory
You can see North Korea’s tallest flag pole from the Dora Observatory

However, the highlight of the DMZ is undoubtedly the JSA. 

2. Visit the JSA

The DMZ includes the JSA (Joint Security Area), the actual portion of the DMZ where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face. It is important to understand the difference between the DMZ and the JSA, as the visit process for the JSA is a bit more complicated. 

This area is under the control of the United Nations. To visit, you must book a tour at least a few days in advance. Though there are several tour operators to choose from, we advise you to book early, as the tours are often in high demand.

The visit of the JSA includes a briefing to learn about the area’s history. Then you’ll head over the well-known building where negotiations between North and South happen.

This is where the military forces of both sides are the closest to each other – hence the slogan of the south side of the JSA, “In Front Of Them All”. This is also where you’ll be able to cross the border, as the line of microphones inside the building show the demarcation.

JSA-soldier-1 north korea
ROK Ready, a modified Tae Kwon Do stance, shows the power and determination of the soldiers guarding the border

The visit of the JSA itself is short enough, but the importance of that portion, the possibility to cross the border (even if for just a few meters), and the guard forces on stand-by makes it the most significant area to visit.

If you visit the JSA, we advise you to check the dress code and other regulations through your tour operator, as military forces may prevent you from entering the JSA if you don’t follow the rules.

Some tour operators offer JSA-only tours. However it makes more sense to combine the JSA and the DMZ to fully comprehend the history and the situation between the two countries.

3. Visit Dandong (China)

When mentioning “North Korea” and “border” in the same sentence, most people will think about the South Korean border. 
And there is a reason for this: it is the most mediatized border of North Korea. The most dangerous one as well, considering that both countries are – at least for now, still in a state of war.

Dangong north korea china
North Korea across the Yalu River. Credits: IC

While the South Korean border embodies the autarkic side of North Korea, the Chinese border, on the contrary, is North Korea’s “lifeline to the outside world”. 

The Chinese city of Dandong is a major gate for the China-North Korea trade. It is separated from Korea by a river, accross which you can see the city of Sinuiju. And it also is one of the main gates for North-Korean defectors, as this side of North Korea is less heavily guarded than the DMZ. 

As a result, tourists in Dandong can watch all kind of goods being transferred to North Korea, or visit some North-Korean stores or art galleries. They can ride a boat along the North Korean side of the Yalu River and eat in North Korean restaurants. It is also possible to watch trains taking passengers to Pyongyang.

Dandong-river north korea chin
Yalu River separates Dandong (right) from Sinuiju (left). Credits: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

4. Visit North Korea (Yes no joke!)

– Where did you spend your holidays this time?
– Oh, I had the loveliest time at this amazing resort in North Korea… The weather was so good, and the soldiers were so friendly to us…”

Let’s admit it. It’s a conversation you probably never had or heard before. But it doesn’t mean you can’t visit North Korea. 

Only a few thousands of tourists visit North Korea every year. All tours are organized by a few state-owned tourism bureaus and tourists won’t be able to visit the country freely.

Only Chinese citizens can drive their own car to Luo and freely explore this North-Korean region. But technically, any person (other than South Korean citizens) is allowed to travel to North Korea and get help from travel agents to request a Visa (independent travelers aren’t allowed).

While visiting North Korea, contacts with the local population will be limited and you’ll be supervised by North Korean authorities for the whole stay. But you will still be able to see, and somewhat experience, the North Korean lifestyle. 

To enter the country, you’ll have to take a plane or a train from China or Russia. Other countries do not have any direct access to North Korea. Even though the Eurasian rail network is supposed to go from Europe to South Korea through North Korea, but North Korea never allowed its use.

North Korea-Tour pemberton
Instagram user @pemberton documented his North Korea trip

With North Korea and South Korea seemingly set on finding peace, there may soon be an increase of tourism in North Korean. Maybe North Korea could become the next country you’ll visit?

KAvenyou: Singapore to Korea – Music, Wanderlust, Foodie, Lifestyle.

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