It may sound like a crazy proposition to venture into what is a buffer zone to a lingering war. Yet while roaming around South Korea, we were intrigued by the possibility to visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North Korea and South Korea.
DMZ tours are actually somewhat of a popular pursuit for curious travelers in South Korea. Yet instead of taking one of the many DMZ-bound tours directly from Seoul, we wondered if it was possible to travel from Seoul to the DMZ without a tour.
That’s when we learned about the DMZ train.
Turns out, you can take a trip out to the DMZ on your own by catching a train from Seoul.
There is an official DMZ Peace Train that runs directly from Seoul to DMZ, Wednesdays through Sundays. This special train to the DMZ began operating in 2014 and continues making trips out to the North Korea border today. Once arriving by train into the DMZ, you must then transfer onto a planned bus course to fully experience and explore the many sites within this heavily restricted area.
So that’s exactly what we did!
This post now recounts this DIY day trip on the DMZ train and reviews the details of exactly how to get from Seoul to the DMZ with public transportation. We’re always looking for the best values in travel and we found this DMZ train to be the cheapest way possible to reach the notorious demilitarized zone from Seoul.
So what’s it like to ride into the DMZ by rail?
The DMZ train turned out to not only be a very interesting trip, but also the most bizarre rail journey we’ve ever taken!
Even as we stepped foot onto the train, we realized this would be a strange journey ahead. Adorning the DMZ train walls are an odd mix of symbols, showing peace along with harsh signs of war. For example, an empty military helmet is surrounded by words like “harmony.” It’s all quite a contrast that sets the tone for the journey ahead.
The entire day in the DMZ was filled with this odd mix of war and peace. There were laughable oddities intermixed where horrible tragedies have played out. The DMZ is part war zone, but also part tourist attraction.
These perplexing contradictions were themes that ran on throughout the entire day. The DMZ is a weird place in the world and taking the DMZ Train from Seoul to the North Korea border perhaps made it all the more odd of an experience.
DMZ Train from Seoul to North Korea Border
To prepare for this rail adventure to the DMZ, we made sure to dress accordingly for the day straddling the North Korea border. There’s a strict dress code at the DMZ. Attire such as ripped jeans or skimpy outfits is not permitted here.
The reason for this goes beyond a simple show of respect. It’s been reported that North Korea films DMZ tourists on the other side of the border. The purpose of this is to use such footage of people in poor apparel as propaganda to show how inferior the world is outside of North Korea. So that’s why it’s important to dress up a bit while at the DMZ.
We made sure to dress the part. Our journey on the DMZ train was during a cold early-January day in Seoul, so it was an effortless task to ensure we were covered up. With winter jackets on and our passports in hand, we set off to Yongsan Station for this DMZ train day trip!
When we arrived at the station to take the DMZ train, we were literally the only people who boarded. The empty train car made us a little nervous and uneasy, as we chugged toward the North Korea border.
What the heck were we getting ourselves into? Where was everyone?
Perhaps the empty train car was due to people not knowing about the DMZ train, as most DMZ-bound visitors opt for tours directly from Seoul.
We also suspect the lack of passengers may have partly been due to heightened tensions during the time of our visit. It was around this time of escalations in early 2018 when a North Korea soldier had recently defected, while Trump and Kim Jong-Un were trading insults about who has a bigger button.
It sure was an interesting time to take the DMZ train!
But as we write this post now, tensions have eased significantly to a point that peace negotiations are even resuming between the two Koreas. It’s all encouraging positive signals of peace between North and South Korea. Who knows, maybe one day in the not-so-distant future the train line will continue all the way through the DMZ, from Seoul to Pyongyang by rail. That is what the Gyeongui Line was intended for after all.
As our northbound rail journey continued, we were relieved to see a few more passengers board the DMZ train at the next stop. When arriving at Seoul Station, it was an almost entirely local Korean crowd joining us on the DMZ train.
This trip to the DMZ by rail was an intriguing travel curiosity for us to explore. Yet for the other Korean passengers venturing North, the journey to their country’s border holds much more weight.
After leaving Seoul Station, it was a nearly direct route on the DMZ train without stops. The highrises of Seoul soon faded, as the Gyeongui Line tracks wound through the Korean countryside.
Taking the DMZ train was a pleasant yet uneventful rail journey that lasted a bit more than an hour. But once we neared North Korea, that all changed.
We arrived at Imjingang Station. This is the final train station before entering the DMZ. The Imjingang Station was formerly the final stop on the Gyeongui Line before the DMZ train began allowing visitors to go beyond it, once it began operating in 2014.
Before arriving at Imjingang Station, we were required to complete an application to gain entry. But given our inability to read Korean, we had no idea what we were agreeing to.
We signed anyways and stepped off the train with our passports in hand.
We waited in a short queue at this military checkpoint and were processed in as if we were entering another country. But this DMZ train to North Korea stops just short of the border with North Korea. So there are no immigration procedures or passport stamps issued.
This is when the train actually enters the civilian-restricted area known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which separates North and South Korea.
The train crosses the Imjin River and the train’s big windows allow passengers to watch this transition unfold, as it slowly travels on a bridge over the river. It’s eerie to see remnants of the former bridge that had been destroyed during the Korean War.
The prevalence of barbed wire fencing and minefields is a clear indication that we just entered a war zone.
Dorasan Station: A Train Station To Nowhere
The final destination aboard the DMZ train is Dorasan Station.
So we disembarked the DMZ train to explore Dorasan Station, which is an oddity on its own merits. Many of the DMZ bus tours even stop at Dorasan Station because it is a point of interest on their tours. Yet for us, it was our departure point arriving on the one and only train that currently pulls into Dorasan Station nearly every day. This little-used train station sits a bit more than a mile from the actual border of North Korea. We were close!
Given this is the only arrival each day, Dorasan Station sure is a large and grand station.
Dorasan Station was constructed in the early 2000s and the rail lines actually do connect North Korea and South Korea. But, of course, the border remains closed today. There have been some freight trains between the two Koreas that have been permitted to pass on occasion. But there are absolutely no passenger trains in South Korea that can continue on to North Korea.
Dorasan Station is the final stop. As a result, this big and immaculate station remains largely symbolic rather than a functional transit point between North Korea and South Korea.
Yet there are visions of Dorasan Station to one day link North and South Korea by rail. With Seoul located 56 kilometers to the South and Pyongyang 205 kilometers to the North, perhaps one day a train between the two Koreas’ capitals may be a reality. Upon peace between the two feuding nations, unification by rail and otherwise is the dream.
Having North Korea and South Korea connected again by trains may not be so far off. Dorasan Station actually appears completely ready for the next departure to Pyongyang.
The station is part propaganda, which makes a bold statement. Yet it shows South Korea’s clear vision and readiness for unification.
There’s an empty arrivals hall, a full customs & immigration area, and even an Inter-Korean transit office.
South Korea appears all set to resume passenger service to North Korea. It looks as if it could begin operation for train service to North Korea tomorrow if needed. Dorasan Station proudly flaunts that this infrastructure is in place.
While it may be the last station from South Korea, many signs throughout Dorasan Station acknowledge it’s “the first station towards the North.”
Exploring the Demilitarized Zone: from Train to Bus
From Dorasan Station, passengers are not permitted to tour the various sites throughout the DMZ on their own. So we transferred onto a bus that is timed perfectly to connect with the DMZ train.
This special bus for DMZ train passengers goes on to visit many curious sites scattered throughout this buffer to war. The alternative is to hang around Dorasan for five hours, when the DMZ train returns back to Seoul. Therefore, everyone from the DMZ train takes the bus.
This bus is timed to connect with the train and the bus tickets are easily purchased while on the DMZ train. From Dorasan Station, the bus includes four stops throughout the DMZ:
- Dorasan Peace Park
- lunch stop at a military cafeteria
- Dora Observatory, and
- 3rd Tunnel of Aggression + the DMZ Pavillion Museum.
Dorasan Peace Park: A Curious Park Full of Hope and Oddities
Our first stop was the Dorasan Peace Park. This park, completed in 2008, was developed to help youths better understand the history of the DMZ. Funded by donations from people living in the local area, the park is chock full of a strange assortment of curiosities!
There are sculptures, history plaques, a small ecology museum showing the DMZ’s wildlife, decommissioned army tanks, an enclosure with deer, a tall looming cone tower, a frisbee golf course, a look-out point, and even something called the Paul McCartney Forest to commemorate the former Beatles singer’s first concert in South Korea.
Who knew you could play a round of frisbee golf amongst killing machines in the middle of a “peace park” inside this war zone?
We were given about a half-hour to wander all around the Dorasan Peace Park, unescorted and on our own, to explore these many novelties.
It was uplifting to step through the colorful pinwheels, a bright symbol of peace within the DMZ.
Yet perhaps most notable are the portions of the Berlin Wall that have been reassembled in the park as a sign of encouragement by Germany’s reunification.
Lunch at a Korean Military Cafeteria in DMZ
The next stop was for lunch at a military cafeteria.
It’s a bare-bones dining hall with a buffet of Korean staples.
Of course, there would be rice and kimchi on the buffet line in addition to some stewed meat, veggies, beans, and soup. Overall the meal wasn’t great. But it wasn’t bad either.
Rather than focusing on the food itself, this lunch stop provided a unique and interesting experience to dine in a military mess hall within the DMZ.
Dora Observatory: Spying Into North Korea
The Dora Observatory is located about a mile from the border of North Korea. Our GPS confirmed just how close we were getting to North Korean.
The Dora Observatory is so close to North Korea that it allows visitors to gaze down into North Korea. The Observatory is perched up atop a mountain and you can clearly see into North Korea down below.
Binoculars are provided to further assist visitors to spy on the northern neighbor.
So what is there to see on the other side of the Korean border?
Take a look! 👇
We gazed right down into the industrial North Korean town of Kaesong. The factories appeared active with the industrial plants producing exhaust from the rooftops and perhaps adding to the heavy haze in the air. Yet there wasn’t much life visible in the empty streets.
Also of interest in North Korea is the gigantic flag poll that almost resembles a skinny Eiffel Tower. This is the result of what is known as the “Flagpole War.” In the 1980’s South Korea had erected a 98-meter tall pole waving the South Korean flag. So North Korea retaliated by building what became the tallest flagpole in the world at the time, soaring 160 meters (525 feet) high.
This towering flagpole is still flying high today in Kaesong, although it’s now the fourth tallest flagpole, as taller flagpoles have since been erected.
While gazing across the border, we could clearly hear South Korean audio recordings blasting over loudspeakers. These recordings are aimed at anyone within earshot on the other side. The audio propaganda is said to have since ceased at the time of writing amidst current peace talks.
The 3rd Tunnel of Aggression: An Underground Passage to North Korea
The final point of interest on the bus circuit from the DMZ train is what’s known as the 3rd Tunnel of Aggression. This secret passageway was built by North Korea as a potential entryway into South Korea. Although North Korea will tell you that they were simply digging a coal mine, in this contested area that holds no known coal. This was the third such tunnel along the DMZ to be discovered by South Korea, hence the name.
Yet a few decades after the tunnel’s discovery, South Korea has transformed this sign of aggression from the North into yet another bizarre touristic site to now explore within the DMZ.
We were armed with hard hats and then allowed to venture on our own, over a quarter-kilometer down into the deep and dark tunnel in the DMZ on our own. There are strictly no cameras allowed, hence we could not take any photos from within the third tunnel. Although we were unescorted inside the tunnel, inching closer to North Korea, there was closed-circuit surveillance monitoring us each step of the way.
It’s a claustrophobic space of only about 2 meters (~6 feet) wide and high. We soon learned why hard hats were required to enter as we bumped our heads many times along lower-lying sections of the tunnel until we reached an armed blockade which we could proceed no further.
This would be the closest point to North Korea during our day in the DMZ. It was here deep in the 3rd tunnel that we were a mere few hundred meters from the border of North Korea.
Back up into the daylight, we found that the grounds surrounding the once-secret tunnel between warring countries is now strewn with strange photo ops.
It’s here where you can show your friends how you crossed the border from South Korea into North Korea!
Except, in reality, this all still is entirely within South Korea. We were extremely close to North Korea. But this is not the actual borderline.
Nor were we actually behind the DMZ fence in North Korea.
It’s just for fun. And it felt a little strange to be goofing around with these funny props in this otherwise extremely serious place in the world.
The onsite DMZ Pavillion museum gives a stark contrast by reminding visitors of the somber realities of the divided nations.
The bus ultimately brought us back to Dorasan Station for the return DMZ train journey back to Seoul on the same Gyeongui Line we had rolled in on. The hour and a half train ride gave us time to try and reflect on this strange day that we just spent within one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world.
Travel Tips & Info If You Take the DMZ Train
🆔 Don’t forget to bring your passport. Very important!
🕙 Plan to arrive at the train station early to ensure time to deal with any Seoul traffic, buy tickets, locate the train’s departure platform, and catch the DMZ train. We suggest planning to arrive at least 30 minutes before departure time to be on the safe side.
👖 Dress nicely. No ripped jeans. No revealing clothing.
💵 Be sure to have cash for the DMZ train tickets, bus, lunch, drinks, souvenirs, snacks, and any other incidentals. (More on DMZ train prices below.)
ℹ️ While on the bus, touring the DMZ, everything was explained in Korean during our visit. Therefore it can be worthwhile to research some of the sights you’re visiting in advance. We also suggest a visit to the expansive War Memorial of Korea, which houses a plethora of exhibits related to the Korean War and the DMZ. It can prove to be a good idea to go to this War Memorial museum before a trip to the DMZ, to gain a deeper understanding of this area and the ongoing conflict.
DMZ Train Schedule
DMZ train departs from only two stations in Seoul:
- Yongsan Station and
- Seoul Station.
Days of operation of the DMZ train are:
- Saturdays, and
The DMZ train does not operate on holidays, Mondays, or Tuesdays.
The DMZ train runs on a strict time schedule, so don’t be late. The times below are when the train departs the station. Arrive early.
DMZ Train Timetable from Seoul to DMZ (Outbound):
🕙 Departure from Yongsan Station: 10:08 am
🕙 Departure from Seoul Station: 10:15 am
🕚 Arrival to Imjingang Station: 11:24 am
🕛 Arrival to Dorasan Station: 11:43 am
DMZ Train Timetable from DMZ to Seoul (Return):
🕓 Departure from Dorasan Station: 4:27 pm
🕕 Arrival to Seoul Station: 5:47 pm
🕕 Arrival to Yongsan Station: 5:54 pm
DMZ Train Ticket Prices, Costs, and Entrance Fees
To get from Seoul to the DMZ you must purchase two one way tickets to form the roundtrip journey. DMZ train prices differ slightly depending on which of the two stations are the departure point.
DMZ Train Ticket Price from Seoul Station: ₩17,800 roundtrip (₩8,900 each way)
DMZ Train Ticket Price from Yongsan Station: ₩18,400 roundtrip (₩9,200 each way)
+DMZ bus trip from Dorasan Station, visiting Peace Park, Observatory & Third Tunnel:
₩13,000 (update: As of Oct 2019, a reader has commented the price is now ₩18,000)
+Buffet lunch: ₩7,000
How to Buy DMZ Train Tickets
It is possible to purchase DMZ train tickets directly on the Korail website. However, it’s a bit of a clunky interface in which you must make two separate purchases of one-way tickets in order to secure the roundtrip passage that’s needed. But the site does work and you can secure your tickets in advance using the site. Just be absolutely certain you have purchased both your outbound and return DMZ train tickets.
To avoid any complications, consider booking your DMZ train tickets at the ticket counter at either Seoul Station or Yongsang station. Note: there are automated machines to purchase DMZ train tickets at these stations, but we found they did not accept foreign credit cards. Therefore we suggest it’s best to secure your DMZ train tickets at a counter with a ticket agent.
The bus tickets to tour the DMZ sites from Dorasan Station are sold separately. Those bus tour tickets can be purchased while on the DMZ train as an usher comes by to sell them. Both cash and credit card are accepted for this separate ticket purchase while on the DMZ train.
DMZ Train vs Taking DMZ Tour from Seoul
We enjoyed our experience of taking the DMZ train. It was unique to arrive into the DMZ by train and overall our DMZ train review is definitely a positive one! The trip was somehow both fun yet sobering, and extremely interesting every step of the way. The DMZ train is also among the cheapest ways to reach the DMZ.
Despite this positive DMZ train review, we’d be doing a disservice by not pointing out a few advantages in joining a proper tour from Seoul instead of taking the DMZ train. The DMZ train does have a few shortcomings when compared to a tour from Seoul.
Below are some considerations to keep in mind to help decide between the DMZ train and a DMZ tour from Seoul. Whichever way you arrive to the DMZ is largely based on personal preference.
English May Not Be Spoken: During the bus portion of touring around the DMZ, all narration, guide service, and even simple announcements were entirely in Korean. During our tour, there was no English spoken at all. As a result, we had no clue about the significance of the many sites we were touring around. Some friendly bilingual Korean passengers politely whispered to clue us in on critical information, such as how much time we were allocated at a stop. But we largely missed out on learning about this unique place in the world while we were there. Update: Readers have reported that their bus tour did provide some limited English commentary.
Meanwhile, most all DMZ bus tours from Seoul guarantee bilingual tours and are geared towards English speakers.
No JSA: Visits to the JSA (Joint Security Area) are not possible when taking the DMZ train. The Joint Security Area, also known as Panmunjom, is the actual border between North and South Korea where soldiers between both countries face each other. It’s also where visitors can actually be permitted to slightly cross the border and briefly step foot into North Korea while within the buildings of a special neutral zone. This famous Panmunjom truce village in the JSA can only be visited as part of a tour from Seoul, like this one. Those who visit the JSA tend to vouch that it’s an immense highlight of their DMZ experience. Read reviews and book JSA tour here.
Timing: There are DMZ tours that depart 8:00 am and return to Seoul around 2:30 pm, allowing the remainder of the afternoon to explore the capital. Meanwhile, the DMZ train tour returns to Seoul just before 6:00 pm.
Hotel Pick-Up: Most all DMZ tours from Seoul offer free hotel pick-up, making for a more seamless experience and saving on transit expense on getting to the train station.
What’s the Cheapest Way to DMZ? The DMZ train is the cheapest way to tour the DMZ from Seoul. Yet once all the costs of the DMZ Train are tallied, the DMZ Train roughly costs the same as the DMZ tours from Seoul. English-speaking DMZ tours from Seoul run as low as only ₩44,000, like this inexpensive tour from Seoul that receives excellent reviews, includes hotel pick-up and a nearly identical DMZ itinerary to the one we went on from Dorasan Station. Book this DMZ bus tour from Seoul here.
For the DMZ train, once you factor in the costs of getting to the train station (taxi, subway), the bus tour, and lunch, the price of the DMZ train becomes roughly the same as a tour from Seoul. So we advise choosing between the DMZ train and a tour from Seoul based upon the other factors mentioned above, rather than price.
Taking the DMZ Train To North Korea
The DMZ train from Seoul to the North Korea border was certainly the most bizarre rail journey of our travels. It was such a unique experience that made for a memorable day.
This rail journey left us sharing South Korea’s vision of unification. We can only dream of one day potentially taking an epic rail trip from South Korea through North Korea and beyond to China and even connecting to Europe! Maybe one day.
Yet for now, it remains an interesting novelty to take the DMZ train to its final stop of Dorasan Station. Next stop, Pyongyang!