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The Steel Horse: A Tragic Relic of the Korean War

By Edited Jul 25, 2015 1 1

Steam Locomotive at Jangdan Station

The Gyeongui Line

This article is about the Steel Horse, a steam locomotive that was meant to travel the distance of the Korean Peninsula, but is now stuck in the Demilitarized Zone as a result of the Korean War. Over time, this train at Jangdan Station has been weathered and rusted as it lays motionless on the Gyeongui Line.

Today, the Steel Horse remains as a cultural heritage artifact with a public exhibition, and it symbolizes the hope of peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. But when it was originally constructed, this train was instead a symbol of technological magnificence and the dream to connect an entire continent by railroad.

The Origin of the Steel Horse

Born in Japan

The train known as the Steel Horse is a Mountain Type 2 Steam Locomotive, and it was originally constructed by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd., of Japan. It weighs an astonishing 80 tons, measuring 15 meters in length, 3.5 meters in width, and 4.0 meters high.

When the train was shipped from Japan to Korea, it regularly traversed the Gyeongui Line, climbing through mountain passes with 1,440 horsepower at nearly 80 kilometers per hour. It was capable of carrying up to 18 kilograms of freight.

This was the life of the Steel Horse until the beginning of the Korean War, when the train was stationed at Gaesong Station temporarily. The train was then used with the intention of bringing supplies to South Korean troops, but was attacked at Jangdan Station by North Korean and Chinese soldiers. The train was then so badly damaged that it had to be removed from the tracks and left to the side of the road in what, after the end of the war, became the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. And that is where this train stayed, rusting and solitary, for almost half a century.

The Steel Horse's Restoration

New Purpose At Imjingak

Eventually, the Steel Horse was moved from its resting place to Imjingak, where it was restored by the POSCO steel-making company out of Pohang, South Korea. POSCO funded the close inspection, rust elimination, structure reinforcement, and application of new protective coatings so that the train could be revealed to the public again, this time as a cultural heritage artifact for the people of Korea.

The restoration of the train itself coincided with agreements made between North and South Korea in 2000 to restore the Gyeongui Line itself, with a new train running the route of 27 kilometers from Munsan Station to Gaeseong Station beginning on May 17, 2007.

The Gyeongui Line

Connecting The Korean Peninsula

If the Gyeongui Line was in full operation and ran its original path through the Korean Peninsula unfettered, it would connect the northernmost city of Sinuiju to the coastal city of Busan on the nation's southern tip, a distance of 518 km. This line was originally opened in 1908, but operations were interrupted and never fully restored when war broke out.

In 1911, a railway bridge was constructed over the Amnok Rover, with express trains operating beginning in 1912. The Gyeongui Line even became part of an international railways system connecting Asia and Europe in 1913. However, in 1945, the division of Korea by the United States and the Soviet Union at the 38th parallel of the north latitude ruined this transcontinental connection, and the railway between Munsan and Gaeseong was officially cut off in 1953.

These are the circumstances that led to the Steel Horse being temporarily forgotten. But it was not lost from memory completely, and eventually the people of Korea sought to memorialize it as an important cultural artifact. Among the people who remembered the train was its conductor during the war, Mr. Han Jun-gi.

Han Jun-gi

A Lifetime Of Railway Service

Mr. Han Jun-gi was born in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1927, coming to Korea in 1945. He began driving the steam train on the Gyeongui Line in February, 1946. During the Korean War, Han Jun-gi delivered war materials, which is what drew the attention of opposing military forces and led to the attack on the Steel Horse. When the train was bombed and shot at, operations on the Gyeongui Line ceased, and this man was the last conductor on the line when operations ended on December 31, 1950.

The Last Train Engineer on the Gyeongui Line continued his lifetime service to the railway until his retirement. Later, with the Cultural Heritage Administration, Mr. Han was among those who sought to restore the rusting steam locomotive that had remained near Jangdan Station for so many years.

Cultural Heritage

Creating A Memorial

Since the end of the war, Jangdan Station, situated in the in Demilitarized Zone, was isolated from society, and the rusting train sat there, with a mulberry tree growing out of its smokestack. But on February 6, 2004, the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea registered the train as official Registered Cultural Heritage No. 78. Then, in September, 2005, the Cultural Heritage Administration signed a contract with POSCO to make the steel company the official keeper and restorer of the famous train engine.

In 2006, all of the steam locomotive's 292 fragments and 132 rails-related splinters were collected and moved to the Imjingak Restoration Center. Even the mulberry tree growing in the smokestack was replanted outside the center. Much was done to restore the appearance of the train, even though it would certainly never run again, and the preservation process was officially completed in December, 2008.

Finally, the Gyeonggi Provincial Government and the Gyeonggi Tourism Organization set the restored engine at an exhibition site on the Imjingak railroad bridge, finally unveiling it to the public on June 25, 2009. And that is where the train remains to this day. Check out the video below for a better look at how the train appears today. If you ever find yourself in Korea, and you have already done and seen everything in Seoul, perhaps you will consider making a trip several miles north to visit this interesting cultural artifact.



Mar 4, 2014 1:03pm
Wow, what a great, unexpected topic. 2 BIGGG thumbs and a rating for this one for a
job well done..
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