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North Korea

Korean border railway station represents staging post on journey to peace

As the two Koreas try again to rebuild their relationship, work resumes on resurrecting a rail link between them, and the South’s people add their messages of hope

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 September, 2018, 11:15am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 September, 2018, 6:21pm

“We want to be back on track.”

A sign on the platform at the dead-end railway station, near the southern side of the heavily fortified border between the two Koreas, spoke on behalf of many ahead of the inter-Korean summit on Tuesday.

Baengmagoji station, located about 100km northeast of Seoul, is South Korea’s northernmost station on the Gyeongwon line. It was originally an intermediate station after the 1914 completion of the line – a 223km railway connecting the South’s capital to the east-coast port city of Wonsan in North Korea – but was left as a de facto terminus in 1945, when the two Koreas were first divided.

A black sign indicating the end of the track and a yellow concrete barricade mark the dead end preventing passengers travelling further north. The black military trench nearby serves as a reminder that a formal end of hostilities has yet to be secured for the Korean peninsula.

But the barricade is at odds with the wishes to be reunited that are in evidence around it. South Koreans have left notes and written poems at the scene, expressing their desperate hope for reunification.

“Lord, we pray for reunification of North and South Korea … and breaking of this border,” reads a message written on a green butterfly-shaped note attached to the platform sign.

A blue postbox – The Northern Sky Post Box – placed outside the waiting area, which invites letters from South Koreans wishing for reunification, provides another reminder of hopes of reconciliation.

“The train once again screams out that it wants to be back on track. Yet there is nothing she can do except for stand still at the tip of the rail of sorrow, and watch the birds who can fly to the Northern sky,” reads a verse attached to the postbox, written by poet Oh Geun-seong.

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These hopes will rise again as the two Korean leaders prepare meet in Pyongyang for three days beginning on Tuesday – their third summit since March – to boost inter-Korean economic projects, including the railway connection.

South Korean president Moon Jae-in is scheduled to visit the North Korean capital to meet the North’s leader Kim Jong-un, at a time when the North and the United States are gridlocked on denuclearisation.

The rail link is at the core of Moon’s ambition to connect the two Korean economies, a plan to open up his reclusive neighbour to the world. At Panmunjom on April 27, Moon handed a USB drive containing a blueprint for economic integration to Kim.

The proposal, “New Economic Map of the Korean Peninsula”, includes the creation of three economic belts: one connecting the western coastal railway of the Korean peninsula to China, one connecting its eastern coastal railway to Russia for energy cooperation, and one on the current border to promote tourism.

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The Gyeongwon line – named as a fusion of Seoul’s old name Gyeongseong and its North Korean end point Wonsan – runs through the centre of this plan, because it connects the western and eastern lines via Seoul.

South Korea launched the line’s restoration in 2015, but work was suspended the following year because of worsening relations between the two Koreas.

However, the project has resumed in South Korea as the railway has become a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation. Improvements to the railroad bridge between Yeoncheon and Baengmagoji have been under construction since early July, with the ultimate aim of reconnecting the line with the North.

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If the Gyeongwon line’s restoration is completed, it will enable transportation of goods from Gangwon province in eastern South Korea to Japan via Wonsan, and restore its function as a logistics route, which it was before the division of the Koreas.

Yet as moves are made towards reconciliation, Park Ok-hee, a tour guide at the station, said the area still carries many scars from the past.

“Before the Korean war, this area was occupied by the North Koreans, and many historic sites show the area was a heavy battleground,” Kim said.

Following the division of Korea in 1945, Cheorwon county, where Baengmagoji station is located, was part of North Korea. After several battles, followed by the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953, the county was divided, with each country occupying different parts.

Three kilometres from Baengmagoji station, the former Cheorwon office of the North Korean Labour Party gives away that the area belonged to the North before the Korean war broke out in 1950. The grey, three-storey building bears myriad cannon marks, a legacy of heavy fire during the war.

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The building, now a tourist attraction, is believed to have been used for torture and brainwashing with communist ideas. Pieces of iron wire and bullets that were used to execute people for not following the communist ideology, along with hundreds of human bones, were discovered after the building was taken by the South.

But despite its dark history, there is evidence here, too, of South Koreans wanting to look forward. “We wish for reunification, and await to drink a rice wine under this shade with our people in North Korea,” reads a sign written by Cheorwon County Farmers’ Association.

In front of the building, a gigantic iron stopwatch sculpture displaying the time that has elapsed since the signing of the July 1953 armistice emphasises that no formal peace agreement has been struck since the clock’s first tick – but that the countdown to the next potential moves towards framing one has begun.