I had 12 hours in Seoul so I left the airport to visit the DMZ (Border of North Korea). Ask me anything!

Olivia Poglianich
Jun 26, 2017

I love to make the most of my layovers. It took a lot of planning to coordinate everything on time, and I was really scared I'd miss my flight (because I hit traffic coming back). But I am so glad I left the airport and went to check off one of the top things on my bucket list. Ask me anything about the DMZ, how I planned my trip, where I was going after... anything, really!

Olivia Poglianich says:

This AMA will end Jun 30, 2017 1PM EDT

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What kind of experience did you have during your visit to the DMZ near Korea?

Jun 24, 5:33PM EDT0

I visited alone so it was solitary above all else (well, I was on a tour but with a bunch of strangers/we didn't talk much). It was humbling. It was a learning experience. I live in NYC and one of my favorite things about this place is the sheer diversity and acceptance of any and everyone. Yesterday we celebrated Gay Pride, so this is even fresher in my mind. But to visit a place like the DMZ, it made me realize just how different certain parts of the world can be. How lucky I am for my fortune and freedoms. Seeing those tunnels that North Korea dug, and even being able to go inside one, was an adrenaline rush. I felt a lot of empathy, too, for the Korean people. Both Northern and Southern. Some older Koreans may even remember what it was like when the country was united. While I didn't meet any North Koreans, I started to imagine what their lives must be like. So isolated, under one of the craziest governments that have ever existed. And at Dorasan Train Station, there's a piece of the Berlin Wall, in hopes of showing that reunification could be possible. There are two running clocks next to the wall, one that illustrates how long Germany was separate, and the other showing Korea. To see how stark the years are side by side (about 30 years for Germany versus ~70 and counting) is a startling experience.

Jun 26, 9:36AM EDT0

How familiar are you or were you with Korean politics and their cross border relations before you visited DMZ?

Jun 24, 7:26AM EDT0

I did some preliminary research into the various tour companies. In particular, I went with the USO - I'd heard of this organization before (likely because I'm an American) but didn't know much about it. I looked into what would happen if tensions were really high (they'd cancel the tours). I had a friend or two who have both visited the DMZ before which made me far less concerned for my safety after hearing their positive reviews. As for the two countries' cross-border relations, that's the whole reason why I decided to visit this place :)

Jun 26, 9:26AM EDT0

Have you ever wondered what kind of an experience would have if you were visiting the DMZ from North Korea?

Jun 23, 2:53PM EDT0

Definitely! I think it would've been very different. I actually am not sure if people are allowed to visit the DMZ from North Korea. I know you can visit NK as a tourist, but from what I hear, they take you on a very specific path and show you a lot of propaganda. Hard to believe the DMZ would be part of it.

Jun 23, 4:27PM EDT0

Did you hear about any unfortunate accidents due to active minefields in the area?

Jun 23, 12:05PM EDT0

No I haven't. I don't know much about it but I imagine that the touristy areas/points of interest do not actually have landmines under them. There definitely are minefields in the area, but the DMZ comprises over 100 miles of a border, so I think when you hear about soldiers encountering these landmines, my guess is that happens in areas that are more "off the beaten path" if you will. I never heard of any civilians being put in danger because of these mines.

Jun 23, 12:17PM EDT0

Was the trip fun and interesting or was it too morbid and full of tension?

Jun 22, 7:10PM EDT0

It was very interesting. Fun? I mean, yes, for a history junkie and someone looking to learn a lot about a unique part of the world (which is why I went). I enjoyed going through one of the tunnels that North Korea dug - that was an adrenaline rush. But it was crazy to think that the world's most isolated and scariest regime was just before my eyes. So it's definitely not without tensions. Also, there's a train station (Dorasan) that was built for unification. It's a bit sad to go there, albeit also hopeful because the station is almost spotless and of course, no trains have actually made it from Seoul to Pyongyang in a very long time. Save for some freight trains.

Jun 23, 9:56AM EDT0

How do the locals across both sides of the DMZ feel and what kind of life do they lead?

Jun 22, 4:38PM EDT0

I have no idea about what North Koreans think. I wish I did. I would love to know what it's really like for them. I suppose ignorance is bliss though, because I can't imagine life is very good there. 

In South Korea, I think it depends on the person. A lot of Koreans don't make the trip to the DMZ. I guess it's less interesting for them. In some ways, it's a painful place for them to go. In other ways, it's a tourist attraction to some degree, and most people don't do the touristy things in their own neighborhoods. 

As far as what sort of life they lead, well, no one actually lives in the DMZ. Seoul is not very far away, so picture any cosmopolitan city with people taking public transportation to and from work, restaurants, whatever other activities they do on a daily basis.

Jun 22, 5:35PM EDT0

What did you gain from your trip to the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea?

Jun 22, 4:30PM EDT0

Perspective. Knowledge. A better understanding of history. An appreciation for some freedoms I have as an American, and a sobering reminder that not everyone else has the same privilege that I do. 

Jun 22, 5:41PM EDT0

Would you recommend a trip to DMZ to someone you know and care about?

Jun 22, 4:10PM EDT0

Yes. You're not going to die on a visit to the DMZ. I would recommend it to anyone else who is interested in history/politics/international relations. I doubt my family would enjoy it much, but if they did, I would love to go with them.

Jun 22, 5:33PM EDT0

Did you check out the various landmarks and interesting places worth visiting in Seoul?

Jun 22, 10:06AM EDT0

I did not. Simply not enough time. I had to make the choice of DMZ or Seoul. I did get to spend about an hour or so walking through the city to get to the site where our tour took off. We drove around observing a lot of Seoul from the bus, too, but that's not the same. Another trip, though!

Jun 22, 1:24PM EDT0

How did you feel being across wired fences, tank traps and live minefields all across the area?

Jun 22, 8:26AM EDT0

Honestly? I didn't really think about that. I knew it would be an activity that's not for the faint of heart. I knew I really had to follow the rules, go along with my tour, and not do anything stupid. But that stuff you mention - eh, yes, it's scary to think back on, but I didn't want to fill my head with worries for no reason. Hundreds upon hundreds of tourists visit the DMZ every single day and are totally fine. But I suppose now that I'm home, it's a crazy thing to think about!

Jun 22, 1:26PM EDT0

Are you aware about and familiar with Korean culture and traditions?

Jun 22, 5:56AM EDT0

Sure..some of it. I have quite a few Korean friends, have eaten a lot of Korean food (Korea Town in NYC is right by my office) and am always happy to learn more about their culture/traditions. I think that this trip to the DMZ wasn't about that. It was more about history/politics/global affairs. If I find myself in Korea again, I will make sure to spend more time experiencing the culture of Seoul, it's nightlife, the nature of some of it's surrounding areas.

Jun 22, 1:23PM EDT0

Would you like to visit the DMZ again given a chance, especially with your partner or your family?

Jun 22, 4:24AM EDT0

Sure. If I go back, I would like to visit the JSA. This is where they actually negotiate and I can say I set foot in North Korea (although the second you actually leave the building, the South is no longer able to help you).

Wishful thinking here, and really really doubtful, but maybe the DMZ won't exist in the future. Maybe they'll find a way to reunite as one country. One can only hope.

Jun 22, 1:22PM EDT0

Are you aware about all the violent incidents between the two countries?

Jun 22, 4:15AM EDT0

All of them? No. But of course, this is the world's most contested border. 

Jun 22, 1:20PM EDT0

Are you always on the lookout of thrilling and adventurous trips or experiences?

Jun 22, 3:43AM EDT0

Absolutely! I thrive off of adventurous activities. Some things scare me, of course, like most other people. But I think life is about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, experiencing things to the fullest, getting out there and doing fun things. Unique things. Things that may initially make you afraid. Facing your fears is one of the best ways to grow as a person. Although I will say..until this AMA I wasn't even slightly afraid to visit the DMZ. Now that I've come home and am talking about it, seeing what sorts of questions people are asking, I see it in a different perspective! But I still think it was 100% worth it :)

Jun 22, 1:20PM EDT0

How many hours does it take by road to reach DMZ from Seoul in South Korea?

Jun 22, 3:24AM EDT0

So this is pretty crazy - Seoul is only 35 miles away from the border of North Korea. One of the world's biggest, most modern, global and metropolitan cities (with the world's best airport) is less than an hour's drive from one of the world's most isolated countries. Crazy.

Jun 22, 1:17PM EDT0

What kind of atmosphere can one expect in Pyongyang and how do the locals or people feel about being in this area?

Jun 22, 2:20AM EDT0

Unfortunately, I can't answer that because touring the DMZ does not allow you to actually go into Pyongyang. Or into North Korea at all. That is really the next level travel experience and I'm not sure I'm ready for that. Seems insane.

Jun 22, 1:15PM EDT0

Are visitors awed by the sight of gun toting soldiers across the borders in Korea?

Jun 22, 1:20AM EDT0

I wouldn't say the soldiers are walking across the border. The DMZ is meant to be a buffer zone between the two countries. Almost like a No Man's Land, if you will. Although looking in to the NK side from the South, it didn't seem like there was much beyond the DMZ anyway. They actually put up a fake city for tourists to gawk at...crazy.

While there are definitely lots and lots of soldiers, I'm not sure if their presence was scary for tourists. At least not for me. I found it comforting, more than anything.

Jun 22, 1:14PM EDT0

Are there planned and scheduled tours to visit the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea?

Jun 21, 8:33PM EDT0

Yes! That's the only way you can visit, actually. Civilian cars/individuals are not permitted. They do this to keep everyone safe. There are lots of tour group operators to choose from. Many offer guided tours in English, some in other languages, and they take you to various sites at the DMZ. The best site to visit is the JSA, which unfortunately I didn't get to do given the amount of time I had. On most tours, you're given the chance to enter one of the tunnels that North Korea dug into the South, at another spot you go to an Observatory to look at North Korea's vast, desolate land, and at yet another, you can see a train station that was built in the hopes of reunification. It's non-operative but has a lot of history including a piece of the Berlin Wall. 

Jun 22, 1:12PM EDT0

What should one keep in mind while visiting the DMA area between North and South Korea?

Jun 21, 7:13PM EDT0

Hmmm....follow the rules. Definitely follow the rules. The soldiers are there to keep you safe, not scare you. The DMZ is really not that scary. There are lots and lots of tourists around, and I would suggest going with an open mind and to ask lots of questions. And don't forget your camera!

One other thing I would keep in mind is that these tours need to be scheduled far in advance. They fill up quickly. Also, it will require a lot of research to determine which tour is best. I went through the USO. They offer lots of tours, and I honestly didn't do the one I really wanted to do, but I was on a time constraint. Check the tours to see if you will be visiting the JSA (I didn't get to). That would be the most exciting/thrilling/scary part to visit in my opinion (the room where both countries negotiate and you can see actual North Korean soldiers). For the JSA, note that you need to spend a bit of time in Korea because they take your passport for a day to check the paperwork.

Jun 22, 1:09PM EDT0

Were you aware about the rivalry and tense conditions between North Korea and South Korea?

Jun 21, 5:54PM EDT0

Of course. That was the whole point of going :)

Jun 22, 9:03AM EDT0

Did you have any backup plan to meet any unforeseen situation or emergencies?

Jun 21, 11:58AM EDT0

I did not. Simply because there wouldn't be an emergency. It's really not as dangerous to visit the DMZ as people think. Had tensions been particularly high that day, they would've canceled our tour all together and I would've gotten a refund. In that case, I would've been perfectly happy exploring Seoul for a few hours and then heading back to the airport. Actually, fun fact, Seoul airport offers free tours for people on layovers. I almost want to fly back there just to experience that next time!

Jun 22, 1:05PM EDT0

Are there any age restrictions or age limits for people wishing to visit DMZ?

Jun 21, 11:53AM EDT0

Great question. I would say it depends on which tour group you decide to go with. There were definitely some children there, but not a ton. 

Jun 22, 1:04PM EDT0

Do you understand Korean and could you follow their language and conversation?

Jun 21, 8:38AM EDT0

No I don't. To visit the DMZ you have to be on an organized tour. They offer lots of tours in English. Our guide, a local from Seoul, helped translate what was being said over the loudspeakers when the countries were shouting propaganda at each other. She also spoke to some of the soldiers who didn't speak any English. I will say, I was met with some challenges when I landed in Seoul and had to figure out my way to the start of the tour. It was about 5 am and I had never been there before. Surprisingly, most everything has a sign in English, too. The trains,

I will say, I was met with some challenges when I landed in Seoul and had to figure out my way to the start of the tour. It was about 5 am and I had never been there before. Surprisingly, most everything has a sign in English, too. The trains, buses, etc. But I still managed to get lost. A very sweet, elderly Korean man tried to help me in the train station, very early in the morning, maybe 6 at this point. We didn't understand each other at all with words, but we used gestures, and it was a moment where I really appreciated human compassion. 

Jun 22, 1:00PM EDT0

Did you visit Korea for some business or study purpose or was it a recreational trip?

Jun 21, 7:20AM EDT0

It was a recreational trip. I went to Bali for Thanksgiving and my layover was in Seoul. 

Jun 22, 12:57PM EDT0

Why did you not visit the local sights and destinations worth visiting, instead opted for a war-based site?

Jun 21, 5:48AM EDT0

Because that's a safe thing to do. I can always go back to South Korea to do the safe thing. And to be honest, I'm not that interested in visiting South Korea. I mean, I would love to go back and learn more about the country, but it's not at the top of my bucket list if that makes sense. Nothing against Korean people/food/culture at all. In fact, I hear they have some of the best nightlife in Seoul :)

 This was more adventurous, more exciting, and a lot more interesting to me because I really like international relations and global politics. I find it incredibly fascinating.

Jun 22, 12:57PM EDT0

Are you aware civilians in South Korea are not allowed to keep guns as it is illegal?

Jun 21, 4:52AM EDT0

Yeah. What are your thoughts on that? I am personally not a big fan of keeping a gun, but then again, it's because I am American and have seen a lot of crazy things happen here at schools/theaters/public venues when guns get in the hands of the wrong people. I could definitely see both sides though. 

Jun 22, 12:54PM EDT0

What prompted you to visit DMZ and were you never scared to set foot on such volatile territory?

Jun 21, 4:42AM EDT0

I have always been interested in international relations and have been particularly fascinated by North Korea. I wasn't scared because, despite the intensity and high military presence, there hasn't actually been much fighting at the DMZ - and because I went via South Korea. I think that despite its name, it's not a warzone, per say. Also, something good to note is that all the tour companies would cancel their tours if they ever felt it was unsafe (i.e. they received a security threat or when tensions are particularly high for some reason)

Jun 22, 12:53PM EDT0

How many soldiers stood guard in the area you visited across the DMZ ?

Jun 20, 10:58PM EDT0

Lots. I'm not sure of the final number. They were truly everywhere. To give you an idea, the DMZ is 160 miles long and less than 3 miles wide. The only way in, unless you are a soldier, is with a tour group. So besides busses full of tourists, everyone else was active military personnel. 

Jun 20, 11:54PM EDT0

Do you know anyone personally in South Korea who would assist you if you need help?

Jun 20, 10:17PM EDT0

I do not. But I do have a few South Korean friends in the USA and I went to the border with an organized tour through the USO, an American military organization.

Jun 20, 10:19PM EDT0

Were you on connecting flights and had a 12 hours stopover in Seoul?

Jun 20, 9:40PM EDT0

Yes I was. I was traveling from NYC to Bali, Indonesia which is impossible to do on a direct flight. I started looking into different options for long layovers so I could explore that "in between" city. Taiwan was another option, but when I looked at the time of day for that layover, I realized it was overnight and most of Taipei shuts down. So I found a 12 hour, daytime layover in Seoul. I'd always been fascinated by the DMZ/North Korea, and when I did more research, I realized just how close the DMZ was to Seoul. So then I found a tour that fit my dates/time quite perfectly. It had to be booked well in advance, and to be honest, it took a lot of research to get it perfect.

Jun 20, 10:17PM EDT0

Did you get a chance to interact with North Koreans across the DMZ?

Jun 20, 9:26PM EDT0

No I did not. I heard them over loudspeakers at Dora Observatory, talking to the South Korean soldiers. The JSA would be the only place that you can interact with North Korean soldiers, at least if you plan to go the safe route and visit the DMZ via South Korea. There's no way to interact with average citizens of North Korea, although I would love to talk to them. Really, I would love to help them.

Jun 20, 10:09PM EDT0

Did you never consider getting into trouble if relations between the two countries worsened suddenly?

Jun 20, 9:21PM EDT0

Nope. I was in South Korea. South Korea has a great relationship with the USA. Things would be very different if I chose to cross the border. I also didn't have a chance to do the most exciting part of the DMZ, the JSA (Joint Security Area). I couldn't go because you had to give your passport to the Korean government a few days in advance and I simply did not have enough time. This is an iconic blue building where soldiers from both sides meet and sign agreements/communicate. I would've loved to go here, and think this particular part of the DMZ could've definitely led to trouble if I broke any rules. I mean, I had to follow the rules no matter where I was, but that particular building would be the site of most intensity. 

Jun 20, 10:07PM EDT0

What kind of activities are carried out by soldiers of both the nations across their borders?

Jun 20, 8:35PM EDT0

I can't speak for the North but there are definitely tons and tons of soldiers standing guard all over the DMZ on the South Korean side. Cars are not permitted within the entire perimeter, save for special tour bus vehicles full of people on prearranged tours like the one I did, or military grade vehicles. They're there to protect the tourists, the locals, and to ensure the border stays secure. 

One thing I will note, Dora Observatory is a place where you can actually view North Korea through some binoculars. You don't see much, but at Dora, the soldiers shouted over a loudspeaker in Korean, dialogue directed across the border at North Korea's soldiers. Our guide tried to translate and she mentioned this sort of thing happened all the time.  When I asked her what they were saying, she mentioned something along the lines of, "We're trying to get them to agree to unification. They're trying to get us to send over more laborers. They refuse to make peace."

Jun 20, 10:03PM EDT0

Which country do you belong to and which city are you currently based in?

Jun 20, 8:09PM EDT0

Belong to? Lol. I am from the USA and I live in NYC.

Jun 20, 9:57PM EDT0

When did you make the trip and visit the demilitarized zone between the North and South Korea?

Jun 20, 6:36PM EDT0

I have always been interested in this border and the dynamic between North and South Korea. I am from the US, and our country is always talking about North Korea - part of me is very fascinated by this part of the world. Of course, rather scared, too, but intrigued to see what's really true. 

Jun 20, 9:57PM EDT0

What did you expect to see during your visit to DMZ near North Korea?

Jun 20, 5:31PM EDT0

I expected tensions to be high. I knew there would be quite a lot of soldiers and maybe tanks/weapons. I didn't anticipate how it would feel to go through one of the tunnels that North Korea dug to spy on the South. I didn't get to go all the way through the tunnel, of course. They stop it for safety reasons. But to be inside was a surreal feeling. And to know that there have only been a handful of tunnels discovered when in reality, the North dug over 30 of these same tunnels that run across the entire border...that was a crazy thing to find out. 

Jun 20, 9:54PM EDT0

Is the DMZ a sensible place to visit for people with families and children?

Jun 20, 5:19PM EDT0

I would say it depends on how old the children are. The DMZ, at least speaking from the South Korean side of it, is perfectly safe. But not without any precautions. It's not a warzone, but of course, it's the tensest border in the world. Whether or not deemed safe by a parent, I still feel it would not be very interesting for a young child. Teenagers may enjoy it, especially those who are interested in history/politics/international relations. 

Last edited @ Jun 20, 9:55PM EDT.
Jun 20, 9:51PM EDT0