Korail President Choi Yeon-Hye visited Pyongyang last week in the first step towards restarting negotiations over a trans-Korean railroad. In a move seen as a positive sign from Pyongyang, North Korea did not oppose further international rail conferences being held in Seoul in 2015 and 2019 Choi announced on her return to Seoul on Monday.
The Ministry of Unification approved the rare trip for Choi and four officials of the state-run corporation to discuss strengthening ties as part of the Organisation for Cooperation between Railways (OSJD). The discussions are being seen as part of the ‘Iron Silk Road’ project agreed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye at the end of last year.
Choi’s visit comes in the midst of souring relations between the two Koreas. Joint U.S-Korean military drills, exchanges of artillery fire in disputed waters and fears of an impending North Korean nuclear test have strained tensions over the past few months. Pyongyang has also stepped up rhetoric against Park Geun-Hye since United States President Barack Obama visited Seoul last week.
Doubts have been raised about whether a railroad project between the two Koreas will be feasible should Pyongyang maintain its current antagonistic stance towards Seoul.
“Since North Korea wants to resolve the political and military issue first rather than touching up on the economic and social issues in inter-Korean talks, if the railroad issue can have any positive and significant impact, the North Korean authorities should take a more constructive and more positive attitude towards inter-Korean relations” argues Park Young-Ho from the Korea Institute for National Unification.
In the past train links between the two Koreas have been a symbol of better relations and an enticing prospect for both countries. In 2007 the first cargo train to cross the DMZ since 1950 went to the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The plan at the time was to begin with cargo trains running between the two Koreas before extending the service to join with the trans-Siberian railway. “The economic benefits are countless” Lee Chul, then President of Korail, announced to the media during the first test run. Within a year the line had been shut down.
However hopes have again been raised since South Korea became an associate member of the OSJD last year, a group which includes Russia, China and North Korea. Russia has already reopened a train line with North Korea between Rajin and Hassan, a project in which Korean companies were given special permission to invest. China has also announced it intends to build high speed rail to the border town of Dandong, increasing the benefits for South Korea if a rail network can be established through North Korea.
But there remain some major obstacles to any trans-Korean railroad that would eventually join to the trans-Siberian network and into Europe. Russian investors, seen as the most important drivers of any long term project, remain unlikely to participate given the unstable political situation. Technological barriers also exist due to differences in the types of trains and railway tracks. North Korean trains rely on old Russian technology whereas South Korea boasts modern advanced trains, so a new line would have to be built to facilitate an inter-Korean railroad. On top of this many Korean exports to the West are small electrical products easily transported by air, indicating that the economic benefits of a train line to Europe may be limited. The huge success of Korean Air as a cargo airline reduces the necessity for such a link.
Choi’s visit may be the start of a long process to rejuvenate the symbolic trans-Korean railroad. The view of trains running between the North and the South would be a poignant icon of inter-Korea connection, but the economic and political conditions will have to be more favourable for that dream to become a reality.