The guns have been largely silent around this four-kilometer strip of land, frequently billed as the most dangerous tourist attraction on earth, which has separated the two Koreas since their fratricidal war ended in 1953 with an uneasy armistice.
In fact, many visitors are surprised by just how quiet and bucolic the whole area looks—a probable result of the threat of conflict limiting the infrastructure-building frenzy that took much of the rest of South Korea by storm. But make no mistake—this potential flashpoint, under an hour’s drive north of Seoul , is a nest of mines, artillery, tunnels, and rigorously guarded fortifications, where opposing armies—the North Koreans on one side, the South Koreans and their U.S. allies on the other—stare each other down on a 24-hour basis.
There have been a few incidents here over the decades that caused casualties on both sides, but thankfully nothing resembling a full-scale return to hostilities. If anything, a trip here is more poignant than frightening—a stark reminder of the absurd situations war can produce.
The highlights of the DMZ, the “truce village” of Panmunjom and surrounding Joint Security Area (JSA), can only be visited as part of a guided tour. The tours vary slightly depending on which agency you’ve signed up with, but most start with a briefing at Camp Bonifas, the closest joint U.S.-South Korean base to the border, and include visits to the Freedom House, a venue for North-South meetings and exchanges, and the Peace Pagoda, a vantage point over the JSA and environs.
Perhaps the most surreal aspect of the JSA is in buildings T1 through T3, meeting halls that straddle the border and in which South and North Korean soldiers glower at each other from opposite sides of the room. Visitors are free to walk around as they wish, provided they’re not disturbing the very wound-up looking soldiers.
Other commonly visited sites include the Bridge of No Return, which crosses the demarcation line between North and South. It’s so named due to an alleged incident at the end of the Korean War when prisoners held by the U.S. side were given the choice to stay in the country of their captors or walk the bridge into North Korea, never to come back. It’s since been the site of several prisoner swaps and bloodier exchanges—in 1976, a U.S. attempt to trim a tree that was obstructing views of the bridge provoked a North Korean attack that resulted in the deaths of two American soldiers.
Many tours also take in the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of several dug under the border by North Koreans in apparent preparation for an invasion, and nearby Dorasan Observatory, a platform from which it’s possible to peer into North Korea and the “propaganda” villages—engineered, many say, to appear more prosperous—on the northern side of the border.
If you’d rather not sign up for a guided tour it’s still possible to visit Imjingak (daily 24 hours), perhaps best described as a sort of unification theme park, a few kilometers from the JSA itself and directly accessible from Seoul via train. Set up in the 1970s, it includes a three-story, museum-like building that houses photos, documents, and other relics that attempt to detail (rather one-sidedly) life in the North, as well as a surrounding park that contains tanks and other remnants of the Korean War.
Close by is the defunct extremity of the Gyeongui train line, which once linked Seoul  to the now North Korean capital of Pyeongyang but has been severed since the war ended, despite several ongoing efforts to resurrect it. The now partially restored railway bridge is known as the Bridge of Freedom, as it’s been a traditional crossing point for prisoners of war on their way to the South. Also at Imjingak is Mangbaedan, a memorial altar where people with family connections with North Korea flock on local holidays to pray towards their separated relatives or ancestral hometowns.
There are no restaurants or accommodations of note near the DMZ. Due to its proximity to Seoul most people visit the area as a half-day trip. Some tours to the area include lunch in the nearby town of Paju, on the outskirts of Seoul.
Imjingak has a tourist information center (1325-1 Majeong-ri, Munsan-eup, Paju-si, Gyeonggi-do, tel. 031/953-4744, daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m.) with some English-language material on the area’s attractions.
Several operators run trips to Panmunjom and the JSA, but the tour affiliated with the U.S. Army-related United Services Organizations (USO), which features experienced military guides, is widely seen as the best. The current USO tour operator is Koridoor (104 Galwol-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, tel. 02/795-3028, www.koridoor.co.kr ), which runs half-day trips around three times weekly for US$70 per person.
Other operators include the Panmunjom Travel Center (Lotte Hotel, 1 Sogong-dong, 6th Fl., Jung-gu, Seoul, tel. 02/771-5593, www.panmunjomtour.com ) and Cosmojin Tour (188-3 Eulji-no 1-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, tel. 02/318-0345, www.cosmojin.com ).
To get to Imjingak, take a Munsan-bound train on the Gyeongui Line from Seoul Station (subway lines 1 and 4) or the Digital Media City subway station (line 6). On arriving at Munsan Station, transfer to a train bound for Imjingang Station—the journey takes about 10 minutes and trains depart hourly. Imjingak is a short walk from Imjingang Station.