A bridge no longer too farTHE DEMILITARIZED ZONE -- From romantic camellias to magnificent Mount Jiri, the Korean Peninsula has a lot to see and enjoy. But if you skip the Demilitarized Zone area, you cannot say you've really been to and done Korea. The DMZ area is especially significant for Koreans, because it symbolizes the country's unsettled predicament.
My grandparents fled the North during the Korean War, so I was often taken on family trips to Imjingak, a building near the Imjin River and the armistice line. From Seoul, it took only about an hour by car to reach the site, which was the farthest north a South Korean citizen could go back in the mid-1980s. Since I was taught at school how evil the North Koreans were supposed to be, I never looked forward to those trips. Besides, I had to keep quiet because my grandparents looked so sad. But those Sunday excursions provided a lot of memories, especially when my grandmother often said wistfully, "If only I could cross this river and set foot in my hometown once more."
Though she died before she could make her dream come true, a little bit of sunshine on the peninsula means you can now cross the Imjin River -- on a train.
On April 11, the Korean National Railroad began running trains for the public to the new Dorasan Station, where George W. Bush and Kim Dae-jung went earlier this year to feel the division of the two Koreas firsthand. Dorasan Station is now the South's northernmost train station on the severed Gyeongui route. Before the division of the two Koreas, trains traversed the peninsula lengthwise via the route, from Sinuiju Station on the Chinese border to Busan Station in the South. The opening of Dorasan Station followed the accord that President Kim and Kim Jong-il reached last year to relink the route. On May 31, the Korean National Railroad began offering package daytours in the DMZ area around Dorasan, where entry is strictly controlled.
Last Tuesday, I was among 300 passengers on a train leaving Seoul Station for the package trip to Dorasan. Most of my fellow tourists were elderly people, gray-haired and carrying canes. They reminded me of my grandmother. According to the tour operators, people more than 50 years old make up about 80 percent of those making the tour, while 10 to 15 percent are younger Koreans and 5 to 10 percent are foreigners, mostly Japanese and Americans.
As a woman traveling alone, I usually get a lot of questions from strangers. But this time my fellow passengers were too absorbed in what lay ahead to care much about me. With each other they shared their own stories -- their happy childhood in the North, the heartrending days when they were refugees, and the hardships of adjusting in the South. The third-class but newly renovated trains, aptly dubbed Tongil, which means "reunification," leave Seoul Station at 8:10 a.m., 10:10 a.m. and 12:10 p.m., every day except Mondays. The number of tourists is capped at 300 for safety reasons. Tickets are sold at the Seoul and Sinchon train stations for 4,000 won ($3) for a round-trip, on a first-come first-served basis.
I was on the 12:10 train. As it passed Sinchon, just west of downtown Seoul, to reach Gyeonggi province, we passengers grew more reserved. Sitting nearby, a woman named Han Gwang-su, who was born in Pyeongyang in 1933, was trying to tell her friends about her emotions. "You can never imagine how overwhelmed I feel," she said, barely able to finish a sentence.
It took about an hour and a half to get to the Imjin River, where passengers get off to be admitted to the DMZ area. Koreans must show identification cards to officials, while foreigners need passports. Apart from an admission fee to the DMZ, we all paid 7,700 won for a bus tour around Dorasan Station. After the procedure, we had about an hour before the train left for Dorasan Station at 2:40 p.m. I walked the 10 minutes to Imjingak, where I reminisced. Tanks and helicopters from the Korean War are on display there, along with materials on North Korea.
I got back to Imjin River Station by 2:30 p.m. to catch the train to Dorasan Station. Military police were at the entrance to the platform with a metal detector. It took only about five minutes to get to Dorasan after crossing the Imjingang Bridge. The man sitting next to me, Kim Sun-hong, in his late 70s, talked about having crossed the bridge more times than he could count back in the past. As a South Gyeongsang native, Mr. Kim was a ginseng trader working with people in the northern city of Gaeseong. "I never thought I would cross this bridge again in my life," he said to himself.
The short, final leg of the trip to Dorasan was so ephemeral that it reminded me of the division of the country. Then it was time to get off at Dorasan Station. We were guided to the buses, which would head first to the Third Infiltration Tunnel, then to Dorasan Observatory.
At the tunnel, which was built by the North Koreans and detected in 1974, the guide told us to remain within sight and to stay on the pavement, because "there are mines everywhere." We took a shuttle elevator, which looked like a miniature roller coaster, down to the tunnel. The guides gave us white plastic safety caps to wear. During the descent, a 320-meter drop, guides called out: "Watch your head and stay inside the car, it will get much narrower." With pipes pumping in fresh air to the tunnel, which was lighted, it wasn't so unbearable. The North designed the tunnel so that 30,000 soldiers an hour could pass through it. Once off the roller coaster, I walked as far north as I could, up to a sign that said "restricted area" in English and Korean. "If you walk 175 more meters, you're in North Korea," the guide said.
At the next destination, the observatory, soldiers took over as guides. We could see the world's biggest flag, the national flag of North Korea, and Gaeseong, a city with 400,000 people, which was 12 kilometers away. The observatory had many telescopes, which for 500 won afford a closer view of the North.
The bus tour around the DMZ lasted about two and a half hours, then we were back at Dorasan Station for the return trip.
Though I wished Panmunjeom was included in the tour, overall I was quite happy with the trip. My only regret was that my grandmother, who died a year ago this month at age 87, never got a chance to see the DMZ ?and her home.
For more information, call the Korean National Railroad at 1544-7788.
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