KOREA IS COUNTING

Remko Tanis • 20 October 2018

South Korean soldiers at the DMZ looking across the border towards a North Korean soldier on guard. (C) Remko Tanis

I’m not the first to have taken a photo like the one posted above. Every tourist, every journalist, every person who ever traveled from Seoul to visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea since 1953 came home with this image. See this Google Image search.

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The DMZ is a 2.4 kilometer wide buffer along the entire border between North and South Korea. The most famous point inside the DMZ is the truce village of Panmunjom. It’s where an architectonically rather bland South Korean government building faces an equally dull looking North Korean government building.

And where soldiers of the North and the South literally face each other day and night.

In between sit three shacks painted in United Nations blue.

When I first tried to visit Panmunjom, in November 2010, the US military (who organize the trips for tourists and others from Seoul to the border) cancelled last minute. Tensions were up, as the North had shot artillery fire towards the South, which landed on the South Korea controlled island of Yeonpyeong. Four people were killed.

I went to Yeonpyeong Island during these tensions. My story here.

Bridge leading from the DMZ into North Korea. (C) Remko Tanis

I finally made it to the Panmunjom Truce Village inside the DMZ in December 2015. And in case watching a military standoff in real life isn’t enough for gloom to overpower the mind, the weather that day made sure to give it a final push. Misty, rainy, cold. Great for taking depressing photos.

United States military personnel (front) and South Korean soldiers (behind) at the border between North and South Korea. (C) Remko Tanis

But amidst all of that, never have grey, fogged up train platforms given me so much hope as at Dorasan station, which is ten kilometers south of Panmunjom and 56 kilometers north of Seoul.

It’s South Korea’s northernmost train station and it’s completely ready to start running trains to Pyongyang, 205 kilometers north. As soon as whichever leaders from both sides meet next at the Truce Village and decide it is time, the station can open up for business.

The departure hall is fully equipped, the platforms and signage are ready. Staff just has to remove the yellow crowd control ribbon that now hangs between poles below the sign ‘Tracks To Pyeongyang’.

All of that in itself testifies of a hopefulness resting not just in political words or passionate minds - but in reality. ‘Say the word and we’re ready, sort of, to send passengers off in comfy trains to Pyeongyang, Seoul, Busan, name it. Ready to be a united country again.’

Most optimistic proof in the drab of the DMZ: two signs at Dorasan station, separated by an original piece of the Berlin Wall.

Signs at Dorasan train station in northern South Korea: left stating how long East and West Germany were separated, right digitally continuing to count the duration of the Korean division. In between the signs an original piece of the Berlin Wall. (C) Remko Tanis

The signs compare the time East and West Germany were separated with the duration of the division between North and South Korea. The clock keeps counting. To the second. As if to say: ‘it took the Germans 41 years, 04 months and 11 days to reunite. Okay, we’ve been at it a bit longer, but this too will end.’

This has been there a lot longer than just for these past few months of slow detente between South and North. Just waiting patiently for what is now maybe getting closer than ever before - a formal ending to the Korean War.

So yeah, Dorasan station: some real optimism amidst the gloom.