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Craving peace on the DMZ train

KORAIL’s twice-daily service from Seoul to Dorasan opens new chapter for border tourism

As the train pulls out of Seoul Station and begins moving down the tracks, the scenery seems all wrong. Instead of crossing the Hangang River, we’re passing the Severance Hospital. It’s a strange sensation, after years of departing on southbound trains for Daejeon or Busan, to be heading northward now to the DMZ.

Launched in May, the DMZ Peace Train runs twice a day to Dorasan Station, across from the North Korean city of Gaeseong. Now South Korea’s northernmost train station, the $40 million facility had spent the past six years in limbo, following a brief period of use between 2007 and 2008. For the year and a half before the North called a halt to the rail operations, trains were used to carry raw materials up to the Gaeseong industrial park and the finished products back to the South.

Leaving the urban sprawl of Seoul, the train stops briefly at Neunggok Station before threading its way through Ilsan’s forest of apartment towers and docking at Munsan Station. The view opens up in the Paju area, with the apartment complexes thinning out and giving way to rice fields and greenhouses. 
The DMZ Peace Train rests at Imjingang Station while passengers undergo document screening. (Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald)
The DMZ Peace Train rests at Imjingang Station while passengers undergo document screening. (Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald)

Uncheon Station is little more than a shelter from the elements, and is only a stroll away from Imjingang Station, where all passengers must disembark for a procedure similar to a border crossing. After presenting an ID and tour plan to a military policeman, passengers receive a pass on a lanyard to wear around the neck.

Despite the seriousness of the inspection, and the switchover on the sound system from K-pop to a dramatic martial anthem, there’s no sense of solemnity as the train approaches the civilian access control line. Most of the passengers are families with younger children and the compartment is designed like a day care center, with a design of giant lily pads on the floor and glossy, bulbous hearts gracing the ceiling.

It is one day before the 61st anniversary of the armistice agreement that put the Korean War on hold, and the North has already celebrated with a short-range ballistic missile launch. But on the DMZ train, it feels like all that is happening somewhere far away.

Riding over the Bridge of Freedom next to the battered piers of the original bridge, standing war-scarred in the Imjingang River, we presently arrive at Dorasan Station, just past an overgrown tennis court. From Seoul Station, the journey has taken only an hour and 20 minutes. 
In the future, the Inter-Korean Transit Office at Dorasan Station may process travelers crossing the South-North border. For now, it remains shuttered. (Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald)
In the future, the Inter-Korean Transit Office at Dorasan Station may process travelers crossing the South-North border. For now, it remains shuttered. (Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald)

Dorasan Station came into existence through an agreement in 2000 between then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-il. Inside the spacious hall, a huge picture of Cheonji ― the crater lake at the top of Mount Baekdusan, which straddles the China-North Korea border ― serves as a reminder that the station was hoped to be just a stopping point on the Gyeongui Line, originally completed by the Japanese in 1906.

Another prominent picture in the station, a map of the Trans Eurasian Railway Network, alludes to the possibilities that would be opened up if the North and South ever linked their rail services. Continuing north from Dorasan, Gaeseong would be just a short hop away, and only 205 kilometers farther to Pyongyang. Continuing the ride up to Sinuiju would bring travelers to China’s doorstep.

For now, the glass doors to the Inter-Korean Transit Office in the station remain shuttered, the baggage inspection platforms unattended and the baggage scanners unplugged.

Visitors who opt to take the Security Tour, for an additional 11,700 won ($11.40), can buy a ticket at the station and receive a second pass to wear around the neck. The Security Tour bus shuttles tourists up a hill to Dorasan Observatory, where coin-operated binoculars provide a view of Gaeseong City, the industrial park and a giant Kim Il-sung statue.

The second half of the tour takes place at the Third Tunnel of Aggression, an unfinished passage built under the DMZ by the North but discovered by the South on Oct. 17, 1978. The last such tunnel ― the fourth ― was discovered in Gangwon Province in 1990.

Day-trippers to Dorasan Station can also opt for the General Tour, which involves a visit to Dorasan Peace Park, within walking distance of the station. Neither of the tours seem to shed light on the slogan of the new train service ― “The World’s Most Special Land, DMZ” ― but at 8,900 won for a one-way adult ticket, a DMZ train tour is more economical than the packages hawked by established Seoul-based tour companies that charge 40,000 won to 50,000 won.

Train and DMZ enthusiasts can look forward to the opening of a second line this August, starting from Cheongnyangni Station in Seoul and passing through Uijeongbu and Dongducheon up to the Baekma Highlands in Cheorwon County. The area saw intense fighting during the Korean War and contains some interesting war relics.

Could Baekma Highland Station, in the not-too-distant future, become the first stop on a Trans-Siberian railway journey all the way to Western Europe?

Of late, Russia and North Korea have been busy linking up their rail connections. Last year, Russia completed renovations of a 54 km stretch of railway ― from Khasan, on its side of the border, to Rajin in North Korea’s Rason Special Economic Zone.

The Russians and South Koreans are also keen to join up geographically: Former President Lee Myung-bak and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to build a gas pipeline through North Korea, though the scheme has fallen behind schedule.

In terms of North-South cooperation, though, things are less rosy.

After President Park Geun-hye announced her Dresden Declaration in Berlin earlier this year, outlining her unification plan for the two Koreas, the North responded with very little enthusiasm, calling it the “daydream of a psychopath.”

By Matthew C. Crawford (