By Lee Chi-dong
PAJU, South Korea, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) -- On a cold, snowy day earlier this week, diverse groups of people hopped aboard a special train at Seoul Station.
They headed to a place emblematic of South Korea's hope for the "end of separation and the beginning of unification" on the peninsula.
"This train is bound for a civilian-restricted area," a train attendant announced shortly after departure. "All passengers must fill out an application form, with passports or other identification cards checked."
She was referring to the train's final destination, a stone's throw away from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a no man's land which has served as the inter-Korean border for more than six decades.
The three-car train with 136 seats boasts relatively wide leg room and a unique interior with eye-catching seat colors and a wall exhibit of 150 images of South Korea's nature, recent history and the DMZ.
Each cabin has a different motif: peace, love and harmony.
For a German college student, who introduced herself as Denise, the message was more touching.
"I chose this trip because I am interested in South-North Korean relations. As you know, Germany has a similar experience," she said of the day trip with her Korean boyfriend.
Denise, an exchange student at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, added she would like to visit North Korea as well some day.
It took about one hour and 10 minutes for the train to reach the Imjingang (Imjin River) Railroad Bridge.
As the train slowly rumbled through the steel-made bridge, a screen installed inside the cabin offered a vivid scene of it.
Another announcement, tinged with solemn music, was soon made via loudspeaker. "You can see an area out windows where some of the fiercest battles were fought during the (1950-53) Korean War. We won't forget the lofty sacrifices of our soldiers forever."
It made some passengers, particularly elderly ones, emotionally charged.
"This whole thing reminds me of the past," Kim Young-hoon, a 72-year-old, from Jeongeup, North Jeolla Province, said. "I was five when the Korean War broke out. Later I served in the Air Force. I am looking forward to visiting the border area guarded by the Army."
All passengers were asked to disembark when the train arrived at Imjingak Station for ID checks and a head count by soldiers to enter the civilian control zone.
Another five-minute ride led to the train's final stop, Dorasan Station, home to the Gyeongui (Seoul-Sinuiju) Railway Transit office.
"This is not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North," reads a large signboard. It's 205 kilometers from Pyongyang and 56km from Seoul, an outside sign shows.
It's also only some 15km away from Kaesong, a North Korean town where the now-closed inter-Korean industrial complex is located.
In 2002, then-U.S. President George W. Bush visited the station together with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in a landmark peace gesture.
But the station is now only partially functioning, with the Gyeongui Line still severed amid frosty inter-Korean ties.
"If this becomes fully operational in the future, it would be the starting point for linking the Trans-Korea Railway with the Trans-Siberia Railway and the Trans-China Railway," said Choi Uk-jae, a local tour guide who greeted the tourists at the station.
In a summarized English explanation, albeit not fluent, he said many foreign travelers have visited these days to witness the scene of a grim reality and vision for a reunited Korea.
"It's a precious tour asset and a spot to demonstrate the importance of robust national security," the retired army officer stressed.
Passengers transferred to a pair of buses for the tour of the Dorasan Peace Park situated between the Military Demarcation Line and the Civilian Control Line marked by barbed-wire fences.
The buses passed by a toll gate for a road to Kaesong and a huge warehouse for goods produced at the industrial park.
"The toll gate remains shuttered and the depot is empty, with the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in suspension since 2016," a driver said.
Standing adjacent to the park, the Dorasan Observatory offers a glimpse of the North's farmland and some city areas of Kaesong via binoculars.
The South's northernmost observatory welcomes visitors with a sign that reads "End of Separation and Beginning of Unification."
The day trip was crowned by a half-an-hour walk in the 3rd Tunnel dug by the North apparently for infiltration. Discovered in 1978, it's 1,635 meters long, two meters high and wide, large enough for 30,000 fully-armed soldiers to pass through in an hour.
Emma Molloy, an Australian banker, said the DMZ Train tour was satisfactory in general.
"I enjoyed the trip. It's cheap and convenient with a train ride. Seeing North Korean land directly and all the military signs and soldiers are an exotic experience," she said, wrapping up the six-hour journey as part of a two-week stay in South Korea. "I would recommend it to my friends."
But she and her Australian friend Rachael Fresta said they "did not learn much" due to a language barrier, adding they will have to google about what they saw.
In fact, a limited translation service is available throughout the tour for both domestic and foreign tourists.
A round-trip adult ticket is priced at 22,200 won (US$19.50) for weekends and 23,200 won for weekdays. No train runs on Mondays.
A monorail for the 3rd Tunnel costs an additional 3,000 won. A buffet-style Korean meal offered by residents in the Unification Village is 7,000 won.
A reservation is available through Korail's website, www.letskorail.com. You can also call (031) 953-3334 for the Dorasan Tourism Center.
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