When the North and South Korean leaders had their historic meeting in April, South Korean president Moon Jae-in told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he would like to travel through North Korea to hike up Mt. Baekdu. In response, Kim made a surprising admission: he would be “embarrassed” to have Moon travel through North Korea, as “our transportation, honestly, would be uncomfortable.” Kim also noted how North Korea’s Olympians who participated in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics praised South Korea’s high-speed railroad.
That statement, going against the grain of the North Korean regime’s steadfast propaganda, was likely Kim’s signal that he wants to improve his country’s railways. Moon, for his part, handed Kim a thumb drive containing his plan to do just that. At the center of Moon’s “New Economic Map of the Korean Peninsula” is a railway modernization plan that’s much more than an infrastructure project. It’s a key piece in the geopolitical puzzle to connect North Korea to the world—and entice the regime to keep its promises. When it comes to the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s denuclearization always gets top billing. The international press barely noted the importance of the other points included in the Panmunjom Declaration for peace. But the agreement to re-link the railways between the two countries has the potential to be even more transformative than the promise of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
As a first step, the rail project outlined in the Panmunjom Declaration would connect the railway from Seoul to Pyongyang, passing through Kaeseong in the North. Ultimately, it would end in Shinuiju, North Korea, linking up at the border with Dandong, China. But the ultimate plan drawn up by the South Korean government is much more ambitious. It envisions an additional high-speed line from Seoul to Shinuiju via Pyongyang, along with the modernization of six other railways traversing North Korea. Currently the rails there are so decrepit that trains can only average 50 kilometers an hour, and the rails would break under heavy loads. Retrofitting would allow speeds of 100 kilometers an hour and enable heavier loads. The entire project is estimated to cost approximately US$35 billion.
South Korea’s proposal is a savvy one, crafted with geopolitical implications in mind. Most significantly, the plan would connect North Korea to China and Russia, allowing North Korea to ultimately become a crucial connector between East Asia and Europe. The Shinuiju-Dandong crossing is the hub of North Korea’s commerce with China; adding a high-speed train line would go a long way toward facilitating even more trade, in which South Korea could also participate. The renovated Manpo Line, connecting to Jian, China, would open another logistical connection between North Korea and China in addition to Dandong-Shinuiju. The improved Pyongra Line would connect to Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railroad, allowing overland freight transport from South Korea all the way to Europe, while giving Russia a piece of the action for North Korea’s economic development.
Taken together, these new connections raise the stakes that China and Russia have in North Korea—and that would incentivize them to ensure that North Korea remains stable and keeps the trains running. North Korea would share in these benefits, as its cities on these trade routes likely develop along the way. The Pyongra Line, for example, would connect South Korea’s two largest cities (Seoul and Busan) to North Korea’s third largest city (Chongjin) and its industrial zone with the highest GDP per capita (Rajin). A plan that boosts the economic power of these cities could have a welcome knock-on effect: reducing the influence of the dictatorial decision-makers in Pyongyang.
Of course, with anything concerning North Korea, grand hopes must be accompanied by maximal caution. North Korea is where the best-laid plans go to wither and die. A version of the inter-Korean railway plan has existed for a while; the two Koreas even had a test run for the rail link in May 2007, having two trains cross the demilitarized zone on two spots. Further development stalled, however, because of the overall deterioration of the relationship between the two nations.
Yet there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic this time around. For starters, both South and North Korea specifically want this project. It’s also consistent with what their neighboring countries want as well. China is raring to begin the One Belt One Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure project that would enhance the physical connection between Europe and Asia. The inter-Korean railway could serve as the eastern extension, creating the overland connection between South Korea and the prosperous Chinese cities across the Yellow Sea from the Korean Peninsula, including Beijing and Shanghai.
A stable inter-Korean railway may also motivate Japan to finally begin working on the Korea-Japan undersea tunnel, a project that had been under discussion since the 1980s. If built, it would be the longest undersea tunnel in the world, more than four times the length of the Channel Tunnel between France and the United Kingdom. According to the South Korean government, the inter-Korean railway plan caught the attention of both the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Asian Development Bank—respectively led by China and Japan, with many other member nations—indicating international support for the inter-Korean railway plan.
As wild as it sounds, we may see within our lifetime a Trans-Eurasian train ride from Tokyo to London—with a pit stop in Pyongyang for its delicious cold noodles.