There was no way we were going to come to Seoul, South Korea and be within 30 miles of North Korea and not cross the border into the land of no return and the most secluded country on the planet. What kind of parents would be if we didn’t give our kids, and ourselves, this most incredible and rare worldschooling experience? Today we traveled on a Half Day Korea DMZ Tour to North Korea with our kids; twin 8 year olds, a four year old and an 8 month old baby.
In America it’s all doom and gloom and nukes. In South Korea, though, it’s all about reunification, reopening the Freedom Bridge and creating the furthermost point on the Transcontinental Railroad linking the railway all the way from Korea to the UK. No one here talks about fearing North Korea; everyone here talks about joining North Korea – joining Korea again.
70 years ago there was just Korea. No North, no south; no good, no bad. Just Korea. Living here in Korea there is no misunderstanding or mis-translation that the goal is reunification. That is what everyone wants and how everyone talks, and South Koreans behave as if it’s an inevitable ending and we’ve all but reached the last few pages in the story.
In our worldschooling experiences, or lessons if you will, (though that is far too formal a term) we focus a lot on people and cultures. Why do people live a specific way? What historical, economical and cultural circumstances contributed to the way of life we are experiencing today? And that of course, inevitably raises a lot of questions about governance. What roles do formal governments have over people and what responsibilities do people have to create the type of life they desire for themselves and their families. Who has the right to choose anything for anyone?
So today as we traveled to North Korea and learned about the Korean War and how Korea became divided, we asked ourselves again and again: “What is the definition of freedom?”
What You Need to Know About
Traveling to North Korea with Kids
Half Day Korea DMZ Tour
아이들과 함께 북한을 여행하다
► Ranking: #cleandiaper
38th Parallel Border Between North and South Korea
The DMZ is one of the most intriguing, compelling and essential things you have to do when you come to Seoul. To learn about the history between a nation divided by outside forces, ripped apart at the very literal center of the universe, as far as Koreans are concerned, and meddling governments that couldn’t stop reaching their hands into the cookie jar.
Currently, as Americans, we are prohibited from entering North Korea. That, doubled with the fact that we are living in South Korea solidifies that we can’t cross into North Korea as is. Therefore, our worldschooling journey today took us to the border of North Korea on a Half Day Korea DMZ bus tour where we traveled with our kids.
Do we actually want to go on a tour into North Korea and Pyeongyang? We are divided on this. Gabriel is a hard no, I’m a definitely maybe. The hardest part I have is with the fact that you have to surrender your passport upon entry, and that probably ensures I would not be willing to go.
Departing from Seoul, we traveled by bus about 45 minutes to the border. Our first stop was Imjingak Park and then we entered the DMZ to visit Dora Observatory, the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and Dorasan Station.
What is the DMZ?
DMZ stands for DeMilitarized Zone. This zone follows along the 38th parallel from East to West for 193km/120mi, or the entire width of the Korean peninsula. From North to South the zone extends 4km/2.5mi. Within this zone, there is no military from either the South Korean or the North Korean side. There are no people, no villages, no stores.
This is no man’s land. There is nothing in this zone except the Earth and wildlife. In fact, it is so undisturbed that many endangered species have thrived in this space unencumbered and undisturbed by civilization.
No one goes in, and no one comes out. There is barbed wire fences lining the entire perimeter to keep out both sides with the exception of the one road that leads through the mountains.
Flanking the DMZ are three points of attractions:
- 3rd Infiltration Tunnel | Secretly dug tunnels from North Korea to invade South Korea
- Dora Observatory | View Kaesong, North Korea and the North Korean Propaganda Village
- Dorasan Train Station | The Eastern Most Train Station on the Transcontinental Railroad and last stop before Pyeongyang, North Korea
Choosing a Tour Guide to Travel to North Korea with Kids
When traveling with kids things inevitably come up and require us to shift focus or change our plans. Because of this, we strongly dislike booking hard plans in advance, knowing that we might have to change things.
We knew we were going to do a tour and even though we couldn’t pinpoint a date, we had been researching tours and narrowed down which specific tours we were interested in. Due to the ages of our children we could not do a tour to the JSA. Children must have already celebrated their 11th birthday to visit this section of the DMZ.
- Self Guided Tour
- North Korean Defector Tour
- Half Day DMZ North Korea Tour – No Shopping
We read mixed reviews on all three and each had their merits.
Self Guided Tour
The Self Guided Tour costs about the same as a guided tour but doesn’t offer as much history and information. You take the subway to Yongsan Station then take the DMZ Peace Train to the Dorasan station. From there you hop on a bus with a non guide, guide driver, that will take you around to each of the sites.
On the plus side, you get a lot more time at each of the sites and can spend more time contemplating the significance of each site. Not to mention you’ll also have time to answer questions that little children will surely have on the spot. Roaming Around the World has a great write up about their experience doing the self guided tour.
On the other hand, what is the point in having more time if you don’t get all the added history and information?
North Korean Defector Tour
The North Korean Defector Tour is double the price, but is led by a defector from North Korea. The potential for that experience speaks for itself. However, this tour also had some rough reviews with many participants questioning if the guide actually came from North Korea. On top of that, the North Korean Defector Tour is a full day tour, as opposed to a half day Korea DMZ tour, and ended with a two hour ginseng and amethyst shopping portion. We were pretty confident our kids wouldn’t last that long.
Half Day DMZ North Korea Tour – No Shopping
At the last minute we found a Half Day DMZ North Korea Tour with No Shopping! Perfect! Except… it wasn’t available on the day we needed. We have two Saturday’s remaining here in South Korea and have enough experience making dumb mistakes in the past to know waiting until the last Saturday would be a disaster.
We couldn’t miss this chance to tour North Korea! We called the tour company at 25¢ a minute and they were able to squeeze us in on a tour, with 75% surety it was a no shopping tour.
Review of Half Day Korea DMZ Tour – No Shopping
► Ranking: #wetdiaper
Seoul City Tour Co. LTD.
Half Day North Korea DMZ Tour
Pick Up Location: Hongik University Subway Station
Price: $47 Per Person | Under 5 Free
The tour ended up being a shopping tour. We aren’t upset that Viator wasn’t sure if it was or wasn’t a shopping tour, we are just upset that it ended up being shopping tour. People aren’t exaggerating when they give a negative review based solely on the shopping portion. We band with everyone else who gives Seoul City Tour Co. LTD. a #wetdiaper versus a #cleandiaper ranking, wholly because of the shopping portion.
We spent 40 minutes at the ginseng museum! 40 minutes! We never got more than 20 minutes at any of the sites on the tour. 10 extra minutes at each site would have made all the difference in the world! We were forced to rush through everything that we couldn’t even walk from section to section. At no time were we told running was a mandatory requirement of the tour.
Not only were we not told running was a mandatory requirement, we weren’t told about the shopping portion at all. There is no indication that shopping is included in any of the tour descriptions. You would never know you were going to be submitted to hours of shopping unless you read the reviews.
We bought a half day Korea DMZ tour. We didn’t purchase a majority of the time shopping for ginseng tour, and we certainly didn’t agree to have our time limited doing things at the DMZ we actually signed up to do, to do something we didn’t sign up to do.
Is A North Korea DMZ Tour with Kids Worth the Money?
Touring the DMZ and seeing a window into North Korea is an experience to see something and go somewhere in the world, that very few people get to see. It’s absolutely worth the money, without question. We are so grateful for the worldschooling opportunity we had to be in this place and take advantage of this opportunity. We don’t begrudge it one bit. We do however feel the shopping portion of the tour is a dishonest and should be disclosed in the description.
As for our guide we received a lot of history on the bus tour, and heard anecdotes throughout the bus ride that brought the history of Korea to life. Once we disembarked at each stop, we were left on our own to move around and see the site. This was both a positive and a negative. Positive in that we got to see and do what we wanted; negative in that it was quite impersonal and we aren’t sure if we saw all that we were able to see, or even could have seen.
The alternative option to any of the above tours, including the half day Korea DMZ tour that we took, would be to hire a private guide. A meer $267 per person is all it will set you back, and the most important distinction here is that if you pony up the extra money to hire a private guide, you’ll still be stuck at the sites with all the other tours.
There are multiple tours stacked up on each other and climbing over one another at the sites. In order to keep track of your guide and your group, you have to wear a distinctive necklace with your guide’s name. You have to memorize your bus license plate number so you can find it again in the sea of oversized transportation vehicles. You have to rush through the sites and worry about the tour leaving without you.
There’s just no really good way to tour the DMZ and escape the carnival touristy feel to it. Since you are required to have a guide to enter the DMZ, you kind of just have to take it as it is. But yes, it’s worth it.
Timeline of Half Day Korea DMZ Tour with Kids
Last pickup at 8:30 in the morning
45 minute bus ride to the border
First stop is Imjingak Park | 20 minutes to tour site
Entering the DMZ and passport check| 20 minutes
Second stop: 3rd Infiltration Tunnel | 20 minutes to tour site
Third stop: Dora Observatory | 20 minutes to tour site
Fourth Stop: Dorasan Train Station | 20 minutes to tour site
Departing the DMZ and passport check | 20 minutes
Ginseng Tour | 45 minutes
Return to Seoul | 55 minutes
Drop off 2:00 in the afternoon at Seoul City Hall Subway Station
Total Half Day Korea DMZ Tour Time Including Travel between Sites: 6 hours
What You Need to Bring on a North Korea DMZ Tour with Kids
- Clothing as needed depending on weather/Dress code depending on tour
- Walking Shoes
- Camera Telephoto Lens
History between North and South Korea
It goes without saying that we cannot possibly offer a respectable history of the events that transpired during the Korean War that explain the division between North and South Korea within a few paragraphs; nor do we even claim to understand them fully. For the purposes of offering a background explanation of what makes the DMZ so significant, we will surmise what we learned during this trip.
Korea was a unified country until the end of World War II when Japan lost control of the peninsula. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seized the opportunity to gain control over the land mass, while the Koreans finally saw a chance to reclaim their country for themselves.
We learned a lot about the history of these events during our visit to Jeju Island touring the April 3 Peace Museum.
The Soviets occupied the North, and the United States occupied the South. Officially, the Korean War lasted between 1950 and 1953, although in reality it began the day World War II ended in 1945 when the US Army decided where their control of the country would extend. They decided on the 38th Parallel. The 38th Parallel has little to no significance outside of Korea.
In 1950, North Korea declared the liberation of South Korea and seized an opportunity to attack the US and Korean armed forces. They succeeded in pushing troops southward from the 38th Parallel to cover the entire landmass, with one tiny 5,000 square mile exception. The coastal city of Busan.
From Busan, the United States deployed troops to aid South Korea and pushed North Korean troops back North all the way to the Chinese border. China, afraid of being invaded aided North Korea and pushed troops back to the original demarcation line known as the 38th parallel.
After three years of fighting where control over the capital city of Seoul was exchanged between sides four different times and nearly decimated, an armistice was reached. Interestingly, South Korea verbally accepted the agreement, but never formally signed the document.
Over the past 70 years tensions between North and South Korea have not always been at a stalemate. There have been times when South Korea provided supplies, and North Korea willingly accepted them, and the border was even opened to North Koreans during the Olympics last year. Since the turn of the century peace talks have occurred five times. The first in the year 2000, then 2007 and three in 2018. A sixth was scheduled for June of 2019, but it did not take place.
Barbed Wire Perimeter of the DMZ
A lot of this history is told on the bus ride from Seoul to the 38th Parallel, though a great deal of it we learned during our travels throughout Korea thus far and history we’d studied up to this point.
North and South Korea are separated by the Han River. The same Han River that runs through Seoul and the same river that we played at the Bamdokkaebi Night Market. Most of the distance of the river is lined on both sides by high fences topped with barbed wire.
Lookout points are built every few feet along the fence line and monitor all activity across the river on both sides. The Han River traverses both sides of Korea and can be an entry point into either side of the peninsula. On the South Korean side, military watch the river for defectors looking to escape, or armies looking to invade, especially during the winter when the river freezes.
As the river winds northward, North Korea comes into view less than 30 minutes outside of Seoul. It is easy to notice the distinction. The South Korean side is lined with green mountains covered in trees. The North Korean side is bare.
Our Korea DMZ tour guide told us the North Korean mountains are bare because all the trees are used for firewood.
Imjingak Park on North Korean Border with Kids
Imjingak Park is the first stop, and not technically inside the DMZ. Named Imjin after the Imjin River that crosses the Demilitarized Zone and joins with the Han River. It is a park that resembles an amusement park more than anything else; even referred to as a resort in some descriptions. There is a carnival on one side, a train for the kids that runs around the perimeter, a lookout point, and a few very poignant items of interest that are almost entirely overshadowed by the circus.
- One such poignant item is the Gyeongui Train destroyed during the war. This train once traversed the no man’s land between North and South Korea loaded with supplies until it was bombed on its way to South Korea.
- Tie ribbons, or flags, of every imaginable color are knotted to the fence on the South Korean side. They are each a representation of a loved one that was lost during the Korean war, or someone separated from a loved one on the North Korean side. Many are printed with specific names.
- The Bridge of Freedom, or the Freedom Bridge, that joins the two Korea’s was the original unifying symbol at the end of the Korean war. After 5 million dead, thousands of prisoners of war and soldiers alike, traversed this bridge once the armistice was reached to come back home.
This wooden bridge was once connected to the North-South railway line, but the end junction is now barricaded as the line is no longer is use. Chung Ju-yung, who founded the Hyundai car company, is North Korean. He was displaced after the war and remained on the South Korean side. As a gift to his brothers and sisters on the North Korean side he sent 1001 cows along the freedom bridge linking across the river. Thus, Freedom Bridge, is also known to Korean’s as cow bridge.
As a visitor to Imjingak Park, you can walk onto the bridge and stand on the remaining wooden slats of this historically significant marker.
There are two sides of Imjingak Park. One side with all the aforementioned items, and an opposite side with a museum, train and amusement park. Go the wrong direction and your 20 minutes here is up. Guess which direction we went?
We were very discouraged after going the wrong way and barely catching a glimpse of the train, the ribbons and the freedom bridge. We wanted to really understand what we were seeing, and contemplate the significance of this point in history. So much of what happened here affects the entire world and this is an important part of our worldschooling journey.
Entering the DMZ and Passport Check
Entering the DMZ checkpoint occurs after your visit to Imjingak Park. The checkpoint itself is enclosed within more fenced barriers and here a South Korean soldier boards the bus. The soldier checks each passport, and each passenger on the train is required to hold their own passport for verification.
This is done twice, along with a passenger count. We were also required to sign a roll call with each of our names, passport numbers, telephone numbers and country of origin.
Secret 3rd Infiltration Tunnel from North Korea with Kids
Once we were cleared and resumed driving along the winding roads, our guide counted down from 5 to 1 until we crossed a painted blue line on the road. This line physically marks the entrance into the 4km wide DMZ.
We continued to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel from North Korea, or Tunnel of Aggression.
In 1973, a North Korean soldier defected to South Korea and told the military of secret tunnels. Secret tunnels that were currently being dug on the North Korean side to infiltrate the South. Secret tunnels that are wide enough and tall enough to fit two soldiers marching side by side, with weapons, in excess of 30,000 men per hour.
The North Koreans deny building the tunnels, claiming they were for coal even though the earth is made of granite in this location. Once underground, you can visibly see the dynamite holes in the walls of the secret tunnel. The tunnels were created over a period of years by blasting the earth with dynamite and then trenches dug by hand.
The third tunnel is located 435m/1427ft below ground and just 45km/28mi away from Seoul, well into the South Korean side. This is not the only tunnel; the North Korean defector warned of multiple secret tunnels. To date, four tunnels have been located and barricaded off but it is believed there are at least 20 more.
Photos are not allowed in the tunnel, and all items including phones must be secured in the free lockers provided.
After passing through a meter detector, we donned our hard hats and journeyed to the center of the earth. I checked my watch. It took 8 full minutes to walk the steep grade.
The entrance to the actual infiltration tunnel was created by South Korea once it was located using a water flooding technique. This portion of the tunnel is tall enough for all persons but has quite an incline.
Once we reached the tunnel entrance we realized there was a monorail we could have taken instead.
The secret tunnel itself is much smaller. The average North Korean is just 5’3”, so that is the approximate height of the tunnel from start to finish. It is rough. And, it’s totally worth it.
I am 5’8” and at no point could I stand up straight. There are sections where I only had to tilt my head to the side, and others where I had to hunch over completely. Gabriel, at 6’2” was complaining about his back long before we reached the end.
It’s an incredible sight to see the laborious work of creating a war tunnel for purposes of invading your own country. Officially, Korea is still one country; both sides consider the other side to be illegitimately governed. It is surreal to be in the exact place where these tunnels were dug. Imagining two soldiers walking side by side, hidden underneath the ground from any knowing eyes, while the rest of the world went on 1500 feet above. It was difficult to even walk side by side with the other travelers going in the opposite direction.
I thought of what the Korean’s shoveling buckets of earth might have thought as they worked. Were they eager for the cause? Were they military serving a mandatory 10 year sentence, or were they slaves working in forced labor camps? I thought how different my entire life has been from where I was standing and witnessing in that moment.
When we reached the end, we were exactly 137 meters from the North Korean side. Three heavy metal barricades block the opening to North Korea with three small off set windows in each. I halfway expected to see someone staring at me from the other side.
At this location you can also buy North Korean soybeans covered in chocolate, and sections of barbed wire from the DMZ that has since been replaced. The gift shop also sells shirts, liquor, yogurt flavored pringles, keychains, and a whole host of other touristy related items to prove you were here on your DMZ half day tour with kids.
Dora Observatory Overlooking North Korea with Kids
Driving from the 3rd Infiltration Tunnels to Dora Observatory, you’ll actually pass by the JSA and its blue buildings and see the road that leads up into North Korea. This is the only place in the DMZ that you won’t find barbed wire, or gates, or tire spikes on the ground. The road has a single, lonely a-frame construction barricade. When the Olympics occurred last year in 2018, they simply moved the barricade so North Korean’s could come into town to participate in the festivities.
Dora Observatory sits atop Dora Mountain and is just a few minutes from the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. In fact, from the observatory you can actually see the tunnels, but that’s far from the most interesting thing you can see from the Dora Observatory.
You can see into Kaesong, North Korea, for one. Kaesong is one of the nuclear sites for testing North Korean’s nuclear weapons program. Originally, this city was named Songdo, the ancient capital of Goryeo. Songdo is also the name of the city we are currently living in here in South Korea, now the World’s Smartest City. There are also monolithic bronze statues of both Kim II Jung’s.
Another village you can see is Peace Village, North Korea, It is a village built by North Korea soon after the armistice. It is surrounded by ample farms growing a wide range of healthy fruits and vegetables.
According to South Korea, while the farms are factual, the village itself is a fake propaganda village just to show off how awesome life is there. The buildings are said to have no windows and no interior walls with lights that turn on and off on a set schedule. The only people found in the village are sporadic caretakers who sweep the sidewalks.
One striking difference you can witness is the dividing line between the two countries. It’s visible by the change in infrastructure. On the South Korea side the electrical towers are tall, white and evenly spaced. On the North Korean side they are rusted, short and spaced far and few inbetween. The mountains are bare on the North Korean side and lush and vibrant on the South Korean side.
The one thing that’s bigger on the North Korean side is the flag pole. Beginning in the 1980’s each side erected a flagpole and each side kept raising the height until finally South Korea gave up. The North Korean flagpole is the 4th tallest in the world and reigns at 160m/525 ft. It’s so tall and the flag weighs so much, it has to be taken down when it rains to prevent structural damage. South Korea’s flagpole is just 98m/323ft.
Even more interesting than the flagpole war is the music war between the two countries. For years North Korea blasted nationalistic messages across the DMZ encouraging soliders and people to come across the divide and join them. In return, South Korea blasted Kpop music. In 2004, both sides reached an agreement to hit mute.
The roof of the observatory offers binoculars to view into North Korea and they are free of charge. You’ll want to spend your entire time on the rooftop, and take in as much as you can during your short 20 minutes. We also recommend a telephoto camera lens to take photos. All the photos you see here are with our zoom lens.
At this station you’ll also find an informative film and a topographical map, but we chose to spend our time on the roof. The topographical map is terrifying because it shows the clear hiking paths through the mountains that are free of landmines.
Dorasan Station: Last Stop on the Transcontinental Railroad
Dorasan Station is an operating train station, which opened in 2002 after peace talks with North Korea. It is the last operating station in South Korea. The rails extend into North Korea and onto Pyeongyang, the capital of North Korea. This was the last DMZ stop on our half day DMZ tour to North Korea with kids.
If North Korea agreed, trains could run tomorrow. They could run into Pyeongyang and connect with railway lines in China, Russia and all the way into the UK. Could you imagine taking a train from London to Seoul? That would be the most epic of all family adventures.
Two trains depart daily from Dorasan station into Seoul, and go no further.
The Dorasan Station really illuminates the power that North Korea holds by keeping its borders closed. It cuts off South Korea entirely by land, effectively making it a geographical island. It also wields power by closing off South Korea which has the 11th largest economy in the world, and the 4th largest in Asia. Conversely, it also hurts itself by doing this as well.
We’ve probably complained about the ginseng tour enough already. It’s the last stop on your half day Korea DMZ tour to North Korea, and one stop too much. It lasts anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on your guide, and the guests on your tour, and how much they buy into the healing benefits of the 6 year ginseng that is only available in South Korea.
We opted to say on the bus instead of touring the ginseng museum. After a few minutes they turned the A/C off! It was only seconds before we were all sweltering in extreme discomfort and at risk of heat exhaustion and were forced into the museum.
► For Kids: A Korea DMZ tour to worldschooling about North Korea with Kids is one of the most unforgettable experiences we’ve had with our children. Peering into a country that is virtually off limits to the entire world with rare exceptions is unnerving, chilling and extremely intriguing. Our 8 year old twins asked a lot of tough questions and just started to understand the depth of how intricate political climates can be. Our 4 year old loved having a bag of snacks to keep her occupied during the portions of the day that she didn’t understand. The Half Day DMZ tour was just the right amount of time for parents and kids combined.
► What We Learned: We learned about war and politics and a lot of really rough content that falls in between those two concepts.
Is touring North Korea or the DMZ on your bucket list?