Heading North: Driving a Kia in Korea

The war of words between North Korea and the USA has intensified over the last year. President Trump certainly hasn’t held back on his views of the Korean peninsula’s secretive state, but announcing that he has a bigger and more dangerous nuclear button, and that the USA meet them “with fire and fury like the world has never seen” is quite a change in diplomatic tactics.

Naturally, it was shortly after this that I was destined to drive a car right up to the border between North and South Korea. That would be worrying enough under normal circumstances, as my ability to accidentally start an international incident is assumed, but heightened tensions across the countries added an extra frisson of excitement.

My hotel room in Seoul contained a gas mask, just in case there was an attack from the north. I’m unsure how much use that would be if things went nuclear, especially as Seoul is only 45 seconds away by ballistic missile, but it’s an indicator of how real the situation is. Every Korean I spoke with acknowledged the increased threat, although tellingly blamed Trump, generally considering Kim Jong-un to be mostly harmless.

Mostly harmless was my overriding thought as I negotiated my way through the Seoul traffic the next morning. I was in a Kia Sorento, freshly facelifted and fully fuelled, and that felt a rather large vehicle to be tackling the incredibly congested city centre in, but the unofficial rules of engagement are clear; lanes merge, traffic squeezes, and everybody fights for their tiny bit of tarmac, mere millimetres separating an old Hyundai Elantra and our shiny new Sorento. However, once a position has been ceded, there’s no lingering anger, no resentment. It’s just one battle in the general war of travelling around the South Korean capital.

With 440Nm of torque available from the 2.2-litre diesel engine, the Sorento could zip into gaps in a surprisingly alacritous fashion, the seven-speed automatic gearbox reacting near instantly to demands for power and feather-light steering making maneuvering a cinch. Large windows helped visibility, with plenty of head turning to see exactly where my foes were, but electronic sensors all round, as well as my driving partner, The Scotsman’s Matt Allan, ensured nothing snuck up on me undetected.

After countless wrong turns caused by late instructions (we were using aftermarket satellite navigation as the cars were fitted with a UK system) and plenty of distractions from impressive architecture, both modern and ancient, we eventually found ourselves on the open roads.

With the city behind us, and a clear ribbon of tarmac ahead, Korea suddenly turned from a teeming metropolis to a rural state that always looked like it could do with just a little more investment. Imagine some of the more remote areas of Spain, but with more greenery and wider roads. The greenery seemingly went on forever, with the air also getting visibly clearer the further north we went, the Sorento cruising along without a care in the world. Spacious up front, and with plenty of equipment to keep us occupied, we’d picked up a passenger from Kia who had all five rear seats to themselves. As a family car, the Sorento is exceptional, with the rear most twin seats being just about large enough to accommodate adults on short journeys, while also leaving a sensible sized boot. This, however, wasn’t exactly a thorough test of its family carrying abilities.

Stopping for a coffee next door to the Pinocchio museum, our Sorento didn’t look out of place amongst the mix of mundane and (to me at least) exciting Korean cars on the road. Seeing so many Samsung SM5, Kia Morning and even SsangYong Chairman cars kept me entertained on the road, almost as much as driving past what appeared to be a complete pirate ship parked on a mountainside. Parts of Korea are very odd.

Plans were formed to head to the DMZ, a strip of land that separates the two warring nations. It’s the most heavily fortified kilometre or so wide piece of land in the world, with gun towers, soldiers, CCTV, mines, razor wire and all sorts of secretive equipment designed to keep people out. And, especially in the north’s case, to keep people in.

However, heading to our destination of Imjingak, something went wrong. Suddenly the motorway looks less friendly. There were armoured vehicles driving around, trucks being stopped, and guns visible in all directions. Barriers were placed across the road, and there was a mysterious orange and white striped line going across the carriageway. Were we possibly heading into the DMZ, and towards North Korea?

Forget the rules of the road, I wasn’t crossing that line. I didn’t know what the line signified, but I wasn’t prepared to find out. It may have been six lanes wide, but the motorway suddenly felt like a very sensible place to perform a U-turn, the Sorento twirling across the road and heading back towards the exit we’d passed just a mile or so previously. Splitting my time between checking the mirrors for an approaching RPG and keeping my eyes ahead for oncoming vehicles, we made it to the missed junction, checked our nav, and realised our error. Perhaps we shouldn’t head to the DMZ after all.

Still, we’d survived one incident, so how hard could it be? Finding our way to Imjingak, we found somewhere to park the car and walked up to the walls of razor wire that separated the people from the DMZ. Through binoculars you could see us being watched by those in the north, binoculars pointing straight back at us and guns at the ready. Local guides showed us through some of the more interesting parts of the zone, including tunnels that go underneath the land and river, and we walked out across the remains of a railway bridge that once joined the two nations.

Both sides want reunification, and for that bridge to be rebuilt, but their views of how the whole country should work differ wildly. It’s a complex political issue that doesn’t really need another country’s involvement. The north might have nuclear weapons (or they might not) but nobody in the south thinks they’ll be used. Only by being backed into a corner by a third-party might things go south, so to speak.

After getting as close to North Korea as we dared (and slightly nearer than we planned!) that’s exactly what we did. The Sorento was waiting, its cosseting seats and smooth ride ready to take us back to Seoul where, somehow, the traffic had died down from manic to simply just busy.

The DMZ makes you stop and think, while the relentless nature of Seoul doesn’t afford you that opportunity. Only in the solace of my hotel room did the reality of living under constant threat sink in. Before I retired for the night, I checked that gas mask just one more time.

Model Tested: Kia Sorento 2.2 AWD GT Line S
Price: £42,940
Range: £29,310 – £42,940
Top speed: 127 mph
0-62 mph: 9.1 seconds
Power: 200 PS (197 bhp)
Torque: 441 Nm (325 ft lb)
Monthly PCP*: £586
Official fuel economy: 43.5 mpg
Road test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 170 g/km
Car Tax: £450
Insurance group: 25E
* Monthly PCP estimate based on 20% deposit, 36 month term, 5% APR, final payment of 40%.
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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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