Taking the Train to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
— 22 minute read
I don't really have a bucket list, but now I wish I did because I actually did manage to cross a few things that I thought would be on my imaginary bucket list this month. One of them was visiting the DMZ which is probably the closest I can get to North Korea. Maybe one day I'll have the guts to actually enter North Korea, but until then, this will do.
But what is the DMZ actually? The DMZ is short for demilitarized zone, and henceforth I will use the DMZ to refer to Korean Demilitarized Zone. The DMZ is a strip of land established during the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement that serves as some kind of buffer zone between South Korea & North Korea. It stretches through the Korea peninsula & is about 4 kilometers wide.
That's Trump meeting Kim Jong-un at the DMZ, a day after I was there. I totally had no clue that he was going to be there—if I had known I probably wouldn't have gone on this trip at all (I'm that paranoid).
Despite being one of the militarized borders in the world, it's also open for tourists, so ordinary curious people like you & me can go visit the DMZ from Seoul if you wish to do so. In fact, it's pretty close to Seoul that you can just make it as a day trip.
Of course, visiting the DMZ isn't as easy as dropping by Eiffel Tower on your way to the Louvre. You also can't roam around the DMZ like it's your grandma's backyard, so you need to be a part of a tour to go to the DMZ. Usually people book a tour that departs from Seoul several days before, but there's always a different (but still legal) way to go about things, amirite?
Enter the DMZ train.
If you're looking for a different way to experience the DMZ, plus if you love train rides as much as I do, I'm sure the DMZ train is up right your alley. Instead of having a tour bus conveniently take you from your hotel right to North Korea's doorstep, you get to take the subways & trains instead, which might be more inconvenient but personally more fun to me. :)
If you're still not convinced yet, the train looks like this:
Honestly, would you guess that this cute, unassuming train is actually heading towards an active war zone? No! And that's exactly the point! I'm all about seeking for the bizarre when going to new places & on my bizarreness scale, this experience seems to be at 9 out of 10. There's no way that I'm leaving Seoul without boarding this train.
This train is the DMZ train—a train operated by KORAIL that departs from Yongsan and Seoul station. The train runs on a line called the Gyeongui line which used to connect South and North Korea way back then before they were separated in the 1940s. Today, understandably, the train does not go all the way to North Korea. Instead, it stops at Dorasan station which is right on the edge of the DMZ. If you wish to explore the area, you still need to join a tour—a tour bus will wait for your train & drop you off at the same station just in time for your train back to Seoul.
Now if you're still not yet convinced, let me tell you that it was one of the most interesting trips I've ever been. If you're now convinced (yay!), read on to find out how I arrange this trip & what you can see & do in the area.
Research, research, & research
Call me paranoid, but I really did my research. I'd rather err on the safe side y'all, so I read up on some news, asked around on Reddit just to make sure that it's not a bad time to go to the DMZ, & just tried to learn whatever it is I need to know before going there. Here are a few things that I learned:
The JSA. The JSA is short for Joint Security Area & you may know this place as one of the following: the area where North and South Korean forces stand in front of each other, or the area where Trump shook hands with Kim Jong-un, or the area with blue buildings in it, or the area where you can actually cross North Korea. For a lot of people if you think of the DMZ this is the place you think about. Now, what I often read is that the JSA is not always open even if you've booked a tour long before, & considering the volatility of the situation that's pretty understandable. However, it seems that only tours that depart from Seoul include JSA as a part of their tour, so if you really really really want to visit the JSA, you can't use KORAIL's DMZ train. I was more interested in the train ride than the JSA itself (shocker!) so I'm totally OK with missing out on the the JSA.
You have to carry your passport with you. This is important because they'll do security checks.
Dress properly. This is especially tough for me because I usually pack lightly & that means lots of mix-n-match of t-shirts & pants which aesthetics I don't really care about... the reason is they don't want North Korean soldiers to take photos of you & make the case that the world is worse than North Korea based on Exhibit A - this person (aka you) dressed like a hobo. Honestly I was REALLY stressed over my outfit the night before. I don't want to get turned around just because I don't dress nicely enough... that'd be the most embarrassing thing EVER (if this helps, I wore a simple shirt & a pair of black pants & a pair of sneakers, which seemed to be enough).
Let's talk about the duration first, because this might be a dealbreaker depending on your situation. If you take into account the tour around the DMZ, this entire trip will take a whole day, so you really need to arrange your schedule with this in mind. If you don't want to spend an entire day there but still want to take the train ride, you can just skip the tour & go back using an earlier train.
If you think you can allocate your time for the trip, cool! But don't forget to check out the schedule first, because the DMZ train only runs on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. So no trains on Mondays, Tuesdays, & also holidays.
You'll most likely take the train from Seoul Station, & it always leaves at 10:15 am.
There are two trains that can take you back to Seoul, depending on your plan:
One arrives in Seoul at 2:30 pm, so if you don't want to take the tour & just want to hang around at Dorasan station (& possibly the Dorasan Peace Park, which is nearby), you can take this train back so you can spend more time in Seoul too.
Otherwise, if you want to take the tour, you'll make it back to Seoul Station at 5:47 pm - still enough time to have a nice dinner or take a stroll at Hongdae. :)
Purchasing the tickets
There are two ways to purchase the tickets:
Buy them at KORAIL's website. This is usually my go-to option when purchasing train tickets (or purchasing any ticket really), but not this time because KORAIL website's user interface is too complicated for me to navigate.
Buy them at KORAIL's counter in Seoul Station. I did this - it was straightforward & you can also purchase them with card. Just mention that you want to take the DMZ train to Dorasan. The ticket agent will explain everything to you: you'll need to purchase a return ticket as well, a roundtrip ticket cost ₩17800, you need to purchase the tour ticket on the train if you want to explore around, & you need to have your passport with you. The best part for me was it was relieving to have a human being confirm that you're on the right track, heh.
I arrived way too early (again, err on the safe side!), so I had about two hours two kill before boarding the train. I didn't really do anything except get myself two bottles of water just in case I'd have a hard time getting water there (the answer is, nah, you'll see vending machines at certain spots).
My train arrived close to 10:15 am. The platform number didn't even appear until 10 minutes before, which kind of made me panic for a bit... is this train going to come at all? Is this train even real!?
Eventually I boarded my colorful train—the train is as colorful as I expected it to be, & I was a bit overwhelmed by all the colors & the words "Harmony" plastered all over the walls & ceilings.
Really, I still couldn't believe that this is how I got to go to the DMZ.
Half an hour into our train ride, an usher approached me & asked me to buy the ticket for the tour, which costs ₩13000. I paid with card—yay, no cash!—so that was nice. Next, they gave me this card & this form in Korean. To this day I still don't know what I was signing for because I don't know Korean. Probbaly not the smartest thing that I've ever done...
I took the chance to walk around the train & took some pictures. There were lots of postcards—most were written in Korean, some in English—carrying hopeful messages of reunification.
The train halted at Imjingang station, a station right before Dorasan station. This is where the security check happens. All of us were asked to disembark from the train & form a queue. One of the security officers checked my passport & my application form, & after he was done checking he let me board the train again.
The weather was already pretty somber that day thanks to the continuous drizzles from early in the morning, & as we crossed Imjin River & got closer to the DMZ it got even more depressing. At first I started seeing fewer buildings until at some point there were no buildings at all, just a vast empty land stretching towards the horizon.
The next building that I saw was our destination: Dorasan Station. I thought I would have time to roam around the train station for a while, but the tour bus was already waiting for us passengers, so I headed to the exit & boarded the tour bus which will take us to our first stop. In the tour bus, there will be a tour guide that explains everything to you. Although recent reviews say that the tour guide will give information in English as well, mine didn't. Honestly I didn't feel comfortable asking for it because I seemed to be the only foreigner in the bus, so I mostly relied on lots of Googling as I visited each stop.
Roaming around Dorasan Peace Park
Ah, if you thought that the oddity would start & end with the train, you are wrong. :)
Dorasan Peace Park is both quirky & somber at the same time. To give you an idea, there's a deer park, some military tanks, colorful pinwheels, a monument to remember those who have lost their lives, & pieces of the Berlin Wall all in one area. The assortment, when given without context, seems to be pretty random. However what I learned was the park is a reminder of the damages of war & aims to convey a message of hope for peace. Behind the strange color scheme & rather surprising assortment of point of interests in the park, there was a lot to take in & think about.
Lunch at the DMZ Cafeteria
After hanging around Dorasan Peace Park, we all went to some kind of cafeteria where we had our lunch. This is not inclusive of the tour, so if you want to skip this lunch then that's fine too. I was starving because I only had a toast for breakfast, so I paid ₩7000 for a buffet of Korean food. I personally think the lunch was just OK, but the great thing is that it's a buffet so you can take as much as you want.
Catching a glimpse of North Korea from Dora Observatory
Our next stop was the Dora Observatory, which is located on Mount Dora. Its position allows us to see North Korea with our own very eyes. The weather that day was rather cloudy, so although I could see North Korea with my own naked eyes, it was even clearer when I used the binoculars provided. From the observatory we can see the industrial town of Kaesong—a fake propaganda village built by North Korea. One highlight was the North Korea flagpole, currently the fourth tallest flagpole in the world. It's said that South and North Korea both underwent something called the "flagpole war": basically South Korea built a flagpole, which prompted North Korea to build an even taller flagpole.
What's surprising is that there's a cafe in the observatory - you can gaze down at North Korea while sipping a cup of macchiato if you fancy that. :)
Walking through the infiltration tunnel, 170 m away from North Korea
This place is definitely not for the claustrophobics.
The infiltration tunnels are secret tunnels that North Korea dug as entryways to South Korea. Pretty sneaky, huh? They said that those are tunnels for coal mining, but well...
We visited the third tunnel, so yes, there are more than one tunnel! In fact there are four tunnels (that have been discovered so far), scattered at various spots in the Korean Peninsula. A North Korea defector tipped off South Korea about this place in 1978, & if completed, the tunnel would have allowed 30.000 soldiers to cross South Korea in just under one hour. It gets even more chilling when you realize that this tunnel is located just 32 miles away from Seoul.
The interesting thing is that, if you walk all the way until you hit the end (& I did!), at that point you'd be only 170 m away from North Korea. Wild! But yeah, you can't really cross to North Korea as part of the tunnel in the North is blocked by concrete slabs & barbed wires. It's quite a long way from the start of the tunnel though, I didn't expect it to be quite a strenuous activity but due to the steep & long path it turned out to be one. I think you can take some sort of a tram if you don't want to hike your way up back but I'm not sure how you can do that - better ask before you head inside.
We had to leave our belongings in a locker, & no photography is allowed at all so I couldn't take any picture from the inside of the tunnel.
Exploring Dorasan Station
Finally, we headed back to Dorasan Station & as we waited for our train to depart, I had a chance to explore the station for quite a bit.
Dorasan Station currently only serves the DMZ train, but it makes it clear that it will be ready to operate fully as soon as the reunification happens. It also wishes to be the starting point of what could be one of the longest train journeys in the world, that will run from Dorasan Station all the way to Europe, which will be possible when the reunification happens.
You can also get yourself some stamps to show that you've been to Dorasan Station. Do not put these stamps in your passport though - you don't want any unofficial stamps in your passport! I stamped my tickets instead.
I explored the platform outside the train station, too - I actually wasn't sure that it would be allowed because most people just went straight to the train, but then one of the guards did actually encourage me to go explore the other parts of the station. That's an offer I cannot refuse. :)
Personally, the entire trip was a fascinating experience - I had never experienced anything quite like it! The trip was not about the sights or the food & it became so much more than taking a colorful train to one of the most militarized borders in the world. I've always been fascinated with South and North Korea but there's nothing quite like actually setting my feet in the DMZ myself. Indeed, it was truly one of the highlights of my 2019.
Seoul Station - Dorasan Station train (roundtrip): ₩17800 (payment: cash, card)