The last trans-Korean rail journey


Woo Ik-hwan, the last train driver to leave North Korea before the border was shut as a result of the war, told the BBC of his final journey.

In 1950 the Korean War started. I was hired to drive a hospital train that would bring wounded South Korean soldiers down from North Korea.

When the Chinese troops invaded, there was a major retreat, and that was when I was ordered to bring the remaining wounded soldiers down to South Korea.

That was the last time a train came down South from North Korea.

It was in the evening when I started the train. It was around 7 o’clock because it was already getting dark. Everyone was retreating and there was an air of sadness hanging about.

I can still remember how sad the telephone bell ringing sounded when I received the final order to come back home.

When people learned that the last train out of the North was about to leave, everyone started to gather around the station.

The passenger cars were full of wounded soldiers so people started to climb on to the steam locomotive.

There were people with bags and children.

Some went on to the roof and others found space where we stored the coal. Soon the locomotive was packed with people clinging on to anything they could grasp. People who couldn’t hang on had to let go of the train. It was a such a tragic sight.

It’s been 50 years since the Korean War. When the war ended and the track got disconnected, I thought to myself that the two sides would stay separated forever.

A railroad track is like the artery of a person.

Look what happens when the blood flow of the two countries come to a halt. Over the years the South received help from Western countries and we managed to develop ourselves.

But look at the North. Millions have died in hunger and their economy is about to collapse. If the track had been connected and if our resources were able to flow into the North, that wouldn’t have happened.

After 50 years of living in isolation, the North have now realised the importance of the track and they’ve finally agreed to reconnect it.

All this time, whenever I had a chance to go to the end of the track at the border, I’d hoped that the track would some day get reconnected.

When I think of my parents and my siblings in North Korea, my heart aches and tears come out. But now that I hear that the track will once again get reconnected, I can’t express how happy I am.

I really want to go North Korea. Over the years I’ve driven steam, diesel and electric trains. I’ve experienced them all.

If the track gets reconnected and if I were asked to drive the first train back to the North, even at this age I’m sure I could do it, if I were to live that long.

When I close my eyes, I still can see the tracks stretching in front of me. If I’m on that first train, that means that I could return to my home town as well. Nothing could get better than that.


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