Keith Barry leads home and car coverage at Reviewed.com, and is a regular contributor to Wired's Autopia blog. His work has been featured in several publications including Car and Driver, USA Today, and the Boston Globe. He frequently rides the 96 bus from his home in Medford, Massachusetts.
Dorasan Station could one day become a stop on a proposed Trans-Asian Railway. Until then, the sorely underused stop is a reminder of ongoing tension between North and South Korea.
The DMZ Train departs Seoul’s Yongsan Station at 10:08 a.m. on track 8.
Running since 2014, the train takes tourists along the southern half of the Gyeongui Line, which once carried passengers and freight across the Korean peninsula. Today, the train’s final stop is Dorasan Station, 35 miles away from central Seoul.
To put that in perspective: If Yongsan were Grand Central, Dorasan would be the Stamford stop on the Metro-North. But, unlike Stamford’s bustling transit hub, only a few soldiers linger on the platform in Dorasan, serving more as tour guides for visitors than defenders of the world’s most dangerous border. Inside, the departures board shows only one train—back to Yongsan.
It wasn’t always that way. Dorasan station opened back in 2002, amidst then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy of rapprochement towards North Korea. It was heralded as “not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North.” Signs that display the distance between Seoul and Pyongyang inside the station became favorite backdrops for selfies.
Dorasan always involved some political theater, but at one point the station was a functioning gateway for trade between North and South. Limited cross-border trains started running in 2007 to the Kaesong industrial zone just a few miles over the border, where South Korean businesses once employed thousands of North Korean workers in clothing and component factories.
If tensions ever settle between the two countries, Dorasan Station would become a stop on a proposed Trans-Asian Railway, giving South Korea access to the rail networks of China, Russia, central Asia, and even Europe — a promise highlighted by posters plastered throughout the station.
Instead, a series of squabbles between Pyongyang and Seoul have reduced operations at Kaesong to bare bones, leaving cavernous customs facilities nearly deserted. Cross-border trains essentially stopped after North Korean forces shot and killed a South Korean tourist in 2008, and Dorasan suddenly became useless, like the “ghost stations” between East and West Berlin.
Enter the DMZ Train, which satisfies the curiosity of both domestic and foreign tourists. On the trip I took, not a single fellow traveler skipped a separate tour that included the chance to peer across the border through binoculars, and a visit to memorials where Koreans with northern ancestry could contemplate their family history. The train had an oddly festive air, with souvenirs for sale, tour groups posing for photos, and an interior that appeared to have been designed by Ken Kesey and Lisa Frank.
There’s perhaps a more insidious reason for the route as well. Tours that emphasize the threat of imminent war are a good way to shore up support for the South Korean military budget and mandatory military service. Indeed, videos that played throughout the trip emphasized that the threat of annihilation
It wasn’t lost on me that I was subjected to South Korean propaganda while trundling along the DMZ, although I doubt Kim Jong-Un would’ve offered me the chance to buy a souvenir DVD of photos from our trip set to Pharrell’s “Happy.”
As the train departed Dorasan for Seoul, I took in the well-tended grounds, the polished floors, and freshly painted signs of the empty waiting area. Absent human activity, the whole scene is an unsettling glimpse at what South Korea’s advanced, urbanized economy would look like if the North followed through with its more bellicose threats.
Perhaps someday it will become a fully functioning station, leaving the DMZ Train as an odd, historical footnote. Until then, it remains the last stop before an uncertain future.