Stepping inside the Dorasan train station along the border of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea is like entering an eerie time capsule frozen in 2002.
That was when South Korean President Kim Dae-jung employed his "Sunshine Policy" to warm half a century of icy relations with the communist North, leading to grand plans for an inter-Korean railway that would extend all the way to China and Russia. Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
Flush with cash from megacorporation Hyundai, South Korea built the shiny and modern Dorasan Station — 35 miles (56 kilometers) outside of Seoul and just 710 yards (650 meters) from the DMZ — as a gateway to the North. A hopeful sign was erected on the Dorasan platform with arrows pointing to Seoul in one direction and Pyongyang in the other.
And for a few years, the station was active. No trains ran all the way to Pyongyang, but South Korean manufacturing executives embarked from Dorasan Station to visit the nearby Kaesong Industrial Complex, a mini city over the border in North Korea where 54,000 North Korean factory workers assembled products for export to the South.
Then relations soured between the North and South over U.S.-led military drills and acts of Northern retribution. The Kaesong complex was shut down in 2016 and the dreams of a passenger railway connecting the two Koreas were put permanently on hold.
But Dorasan Station remains. And visiting the station today can trigger a rollercoaster of emotions ranging from depressing to inspiring.
Visiting the Dorasan Station
Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein lives in Seoul, where he's an associate scholar with the Foreign Policy Research Institute and editor of North Korea Economy Watch. Silberstein has visited Dorasan Station several times, most recently in 2017, when relations between North Korea and the U.S. were extremely tense.
"It's a really fascinating place," says Silberstein. "It's set up perfectly to handle bustling, booming trade between North and South Korea. There are all of these customs forms just lying there waiting for people to use. But as long as the Kaesong Industrial Complex is shut down, it's this really weird ghost town and/or sad monument to what could be."
Silberstein was most surprised to see that every single part of Dorasan Station was fully staffed and open for business, even though only a trickle of tourists were there to gawk at the empty platforms.
"There were people working in the cafeteria," says Silberstein. "There was a janitor on staff. They have this infrastructure to hold meetings inside this really nice conference room. It felt like a whole little world that was operating for nothing."
Getting to Dorasan Station is easy. A daily DMZ Peace Train departs from Seoul's Yongsan Station at 10:08 a.m. sharp. The train is decked out as an enthusiastic homage to Korean reunification, the outside covered with happy cartoon images of Koreans holding hands, and the brightly painted interior stamped with the words "peace, love and harmony" in multiple languages. By 11:43 a.m. you're at the Dorasan station.
Both foreign and domestic tourists usually take the train to Dorasan as part of a package tour of the DMZ, a chance to take selfies in front of the Pyongyang-Seoul sign and peer through binoculars into the mysterious and impenetrable North.
Dorasan may not be a wasteland for long. Under the leadership of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, talks with the North have resumed and dignitaries from the two sides met at Dorasan in late 2018 to officially reopen the inter-Korean rail line.
Silberstein says that both Koreas have something to gain from increased economic exchange. South Korea has tons of capital and North Korea has tons of workers. Bringing them together would be a win-win. South Korea has ample political will to join forces, but standing in the way is North Korea's refusal to denuclearize, which imposes strict sanctions against doing business with the rogue state.
As a visitor in 2017, Silberstein found Dorasan a little creepy, like the empty hotels in North Korea that only open when there's a foreign guest. But with the recent exchange of "good vibes" between the Koreas, he thinks that South Koreans might see the stranded station in a different light.
"A lot of people probably go there and hope that next time they'll actually get on that train to Pyongyang," says Silberstein. "The platforms are there. The signs are there. There's even a timetable that's empty, all ready to go. For them, it's a monument to hope. A very expensive monument to hope."