South Korea: Dorasan train station in DMZ still waiting for a connection
January 11, 2012
Under the watchful eye of a handful of workers and stern South Korean soldiers, travelers wandered about the train station admiring the artwork and advertisements that adorned the walls of the $40 million facility. The dozens of vibrant chairs in the expansive lobby looked brand new, the floor shined, and a ticker flashed information to visitors. The complex boasted some of the cleanest bathrooms of any public facility from Busan to Seoul. Travelers looked at their reflections in the bulletproof glass of the facade. A man behind the ticket counter stood ready to sell boarding passes to anyone passing through the turnstiles before heading outside to its platforms.
But there were no trains scheduled to pass through this day, or any other day for that matter.
Dorasan Station sits just over the South Korean side of the border in one of the most dangerous and militarized regions on the planet — the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at the immaculately maintained station, which serves as a beacon of hope for reunification on the Korean peninsula. The recent death of North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il briefly renewed hope that it might be possible, but statements made recently by the repressive regime and its new ruler, Kim Jong Un, have deflated those hopes.
A sign in the lobby reads, “Not the last station from the South, But the first station toward the North.”
In 2000, representatives from both the South and North Korean governments agreed to link the two countries at the Gyeongui Railroad Line. The mines and barbed wire were removed and Dorasan Station opened on the South Korean side about two years later.
The station’s roof features clasped hands in a traditional pattern, a largely symbolic offering of hope for peace and eventual reconciliation between the two foes. On June 14, 2003, the tracks were connected at the Military Demarcation Line in the DMZ. For a short time, limited freight flowed back and forth from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a place just over the line on the North Korean side of the border where female North Koreans are allowed to work for South Korean companies away from the rest of the populace, but the ever-fluctuating tensions and posturing saw a quick end to that.
Now the station is a dead end.
The surrounding warehouses and customs buildings are unused, appearing still wet with fresh paint — beacons amid a bleak Korean winter and remote surroundings.
The South Korean soldiers at Dorasan were friendly and some posed for photos with smiling tourists. For less than a dollar, visitors bought tickets as a souvenir and had them stamped for embarkation. Tour guides ushered visitors outside to the paver platform and a billboard commemorating the place where former President George W. Bush gave a speech during his term about the importance of the station as an olive branch, next to a sign that gives the distance to Seoul in one direction, 56 km, and Pyongyang, 205 km, in the other. The tracks seem to stretch endlessly in both directions, into a snowy no man’s land.
An eerie quiet and sense of unease hung thick in the air despite the fact that busloads of foreign tourists are ferried in and out almost each and every day. The abandoned buildings nearby and a lack of trains was stirring.
The best way to visit the station is to book a tour before arriving in Seoul. Some packages include the Joint Security Area and 3rd Infiltration Tunnel.
The station perfectly illustrates the divide between the north and south. The $40 million price tag was a gamble for an olive branch of sorts, but the station is a bit more than that. It is an invitation to a world community that will surely spell the end of North Korea’s repressive regime.
So for now, the invitation is open, and the trains don’t run.
But the station and surrounding buildings are maintained and sit idly, waiting for that day to come.