x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

South Korea's railway to nowhere, symbol of failed rapprochement with North

Dorasan station, by the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, was reopened in 2002 in plans to relink Seoul and Pyongyang amid hopes of friendlier relationships. No passenger has used it since.

A South Korean soldier patrolling the deserted platform area at Dorasan station in South Korea, which was rebuilt so that passengers could travel from there into North Korea.
A South Korean soldier patrolling the deserted platform area at Dorasan station in South Korea, which was rebuilt so that passengers could travel from there into North Korea.

DORASAN STATION // The smiling foreign tourists wait patiently as they queue to buy tickets at this station, the last stop a few kilometres south of the border with North Korea.

There are parents with children, young couples and wizened globetrotters standing in line in front of the cashier.

Nearby, the entry to the platform optimistically proclaims "To Pyongyang" in Korean and English, and a huge Korail billboard shouts out that this is "Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North".

South Korea's capital, Seoul, is 56km to the south of Dorasan station, which lies just outside the demilitarised zone between the countries, while Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, is 205km up the tracks to the north.

While this appears at first to be a fully functioning railway station, the tickets on sale will not get the visitors - all of them taking a day-trip in and around the South Korean side of the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas - very far: they are merely entry permits for the platform.

There are no trains passing through Dorasan today, tomorrow or the next day because this is South Korea's railway station to nowhere, an unhappy monument to failed optimism and continued strife on the peninsula.

After a summit between the two Koreas in 2000, millions of dollars were lavished on rebuilding Dorasan station as part of an agreement to reopen the Gyeongui line, which linked Seoul and Pyongyang when it was opened more than a century ago.

It was a highly visible demonstration of the "sunshine policy" of overtures to North Korea under the then president, Kim Dae-jung.

In February 2002, the US president at the time, George W Bush, visited the station with Mr Kim. Two months later the station officially reopened and in June 2003 the Gyeongui line was reconnected.

For Mr Kim, elected in 1998 and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts to promote rapprochement on the peninsula, the station was meant to represent further evidence that these two countries, divided for more than half a century, were moving closer together.

In 2007, under Mr Kim's successor, Roh Moo-hyun, freight services between the two countries began passing through the station, but by late 2008 South Korea was taking a tougher line with Pyongyang under Lee Myung-bak and even these trains stopped.

No passengers have travelled into North Korea from the refurbished station, and the X-ray machines and customs stations for departing travellers remain unused.

"The sunshine policy basically failed," said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who studies East Asian security issues.

"The majority of people in South Korea, especially the elite, realised South Korean encouragement of North Korea in all these policies in the sunshine package had not produced the positive results the policymakers during Kim Dae-Jung's era anticipated."

Recent North Korean assertiveness means Mr Lee and the present administration "cannot find any justification to adopt any elements of the old sunshine policy".

Last year relations plunged to a new low after North Korea was blamed for the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan with the loss of 46 lives and North Korea bombarded South Korea's Yeonpyeong island, killing two civilians and two young marines.

A change of attitude from North Korea , Mr Li said, could result from the probably eventual transfer of power from the present North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, to his son, Kim Jong-un.

"If you have that overall positive transformation of the regional security situation, it's possible South Korea may consider reopening that station in the future, but right now it's too early to say," Mr Li said.

Back on the platform, there are a few people milling about taking photographs and posing alongside a young South Korean soldier.

After a few minutes, the khaki-clad soldier rounds up the tourists and shepherds them to the exit, leaving the platform and the railway tracks eerily quiet.

dbardsley@thenational.ae