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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 StationBenjamin Katzeff Silberstein lives in Seoul, where he's an associate scholar with the Foreign Policy Research Institute and co-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."
This article first appeared on science.howstuffworks.com
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