I Bought a Train Ticket to North Korea

In spite of the overwhelmingly negative headlines, the unpredictable nature of the country, and its horrific track-record on human rights, many of us are fascinated by North Korea.  

Since the 1950s, North Korea has been divided from the South, and a 150-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide barrier now separates the two nations. This barrier is known as the DMZ or the Demilitarized Zone.

Anybody visiting or living in South Korea (it’s highly unlikely you’ll see many South Koreans there though) can visit the DMZ as part of a tour. Most of these tours depart from Seoul every day, and most providers offer both morning and afternoon options.

Accompanied by a childhood friend who was visiting for the weekend, we grabbed a Dunkin’ Dohnuts breakfast and set off early one chilly Saturday morning.  

I love Seoul in the morning time. It’s a complete contrast to the busy roads and hustling streets of the night before. The streets are peaceful and isolated.  South Korea has a peculiar assortment of building types. When the sunrises, it reflects from building to building of the capital cities funky architectural landscape. It feels magical to me. Perspective is powerful, I think seeing something you know so well from a new angle really deepens your appreciation for it., whether that is a person, a memory or even a city.

The empty roads made our exit from the city an easy one, we were soon on our way. The journey from Seoul to the DMZ is surprisingly short, only 74 KM in total, just under an hour’s drive.  It’s hard to imagine that South Korea’s capital city, a place that has a population of almost 10 million people is so close to North Korea.

After a short while, we pulled off the quiet highway and started to drive through lesser built-up parts of the country, and before we could even finish our coffees, we had arrived.

Our first stop was Imgjingjak park and Freedom Bridge. Built in 1972, Imgjingjak was built to provide hope that unification would one day be possible, the park is full of monuments and statues to console North and South Korean families. Close to the main square is the Freedom Bridge, which has equal importance. Over 12,000 prisoners of war used this bridge to return home in 1953. The bridge now symbolizes freedom.

Next up was the DMZ Theatre & Exhibition Hall, a mini museum with a small auditorium that plays a short film about the North and South divide on repeat.  The exhibition hall showcases artifacts from the Korean war and provides general information about the DMZ itself. It was interesting enough and it was helpful to get more information to really strengthen my understanding of everything we were seeing that day.

The Dora Observatory is where you can see into North Korea in person.  Not through video, museum installations or news segments, but with your own eyes or through one of the many fixed binoculars scattered along the deck of the observatory. It was a pretty abnormal experience. On a clear day, you can even see a statue of Kim Il-Sung. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the monument of the ex-North Korean president, despite my best efforts! But I could clearly make out the North Korea propaganda village, the mountains and the thriving nature in the DMZ.

I think what I found most surprising about the DMZ was the nature and wildlife. I wasn’t expecting it. It crosses mountains, rivers, coastlines, jungles and forest, so the area is teeming with all manner of plants and animals.   In hindsight,  I suppose it make sense, the area has been mainly untouched by man for over 60 years.

By far, my favourite part of the tour was going underground and exploring the Third Infiltration Tunnel, a North Korean secret passageway that lies beneath the DMZ. 

The tunnel was only discovered in 1975 when a North Korean defector had claimed that the North Koreans had a hidden underpass to help them invade the south. Today it’s accessible to the public.

To visit the tunnel, you need a hard helmet to protect your head as the tunnels are quite narrow and you should also be in somewhat of a decent physical condition. The steep incline path down to the tunnel is easy but getting back up the same route may prove challenging for some people.

When in the tunnel, photos are prohibited and you will hit your head several times (this is when the hard helmets come in handy), but you can look around by yourself, as long as you don’t wander into the restricted areas.

It’s a surreal experience being down there and imagining how it was all those years ago.

Our final stop was Dorasan station (도라산역), a train station on the border that connects the two countries by rail link.

The station feels like a show-home, not a real place. Everything is perfectly presented, sparking clean and modern. It is completely unused!  Even the ticket machines work! For the price of W1000 (around 1 dollar), I bought myself a ticket to North Korea.  Of course, it’s highly unlikely it’ll ever be usable, but as I was there, I had to for the novelty!

Abruptly in 2008, North Korea closed the border crossing after accusing the South Korean government of confrontational policy.

The station is currently used as a symbol of hope for a possible Korean reunification.


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