중앙데일리

Dreams of linking Europe and Asia.

Why is there great interest in inter-Korean railroads?

June 19,2007
A South Korean train leaves Dorasan Station for the inter-Korean border during the May 17 test run on the restored Gyeongui Line. By Joint Press Corps
The two Koreas celebrated historic test runs on inter-Korean railways on May 17, for the first time since the national division 56 years ago. Two trains, which departed from the South’s Munsan Station and the North’s Mount Kumgang Station, crossed the four-kilometer (2.5 miles) Demilitarized Zone, to test the restored railroads of the Gyeongui and the Donghae (or East Coast lines).

Korea’s railroad history
Steam powered the Industrial Revolution and the rise of railroads. In the early days, railroads were mainly used for transporting coal from mining areas to industrial zones. The world’s first railroad was built in 1830 to link the mines in Manchester, England to factories in Liverpool. At the time, trains ran at 22 kilometers per hour (14 miles per hour), a speed never before seen in the world.
Railroads were first introduced in Korea when Lee Ha-yeong, a diplomat returning from the United States, brought back a model train in 1889. The first railroad in the country was built in 1899, linking Noryangjin in Seoul and Jemulpo in Incheon, running 33.2 kilometers.
From then on, more and more railroads were opened in Korea, including the Gyeongbu, Gyeongui and Honam lines, during the Japanese colonial period. These railroads formed the framework of today’s rail network in Korea. The Japanese colonial government built the railroads to exploit its colony and create a launching pad for invading other nations on the continent.
Korea’s rapid industrialization in the 1960s and ’70s became the heyday of the nation’s railroads. Industrial railroads such as the Jungang and Taebaek lines opened up to transport raw materials, fuel and the products of burgeoning industries. Saemaeul, the express train service, was introduced as the most economical long distance transportation to many destinations around the country.
Since the 1980s, the number of cars in Korea has skyrocketed, and passenger transportation by railroad has decreased sharply. But the rail network is still the key transport for goods because of its relatively lower cost. Subway systems were built in Seoul in 1974 to better support urban populations. In 2004 Korea opened KTX, its high-speed “bullet” train service.

The Korean War and the severed railroads
Korea’s rail network was severed in the Korean War and the subsequent national division. The Donghae Line, which connects Anbyon, South Hamgyong Province and Yangyang, Gangwon Province was severed shortly after the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950. The Gyeongui Line, which connected Seoul and Shinuiju in the North, was cut the following year by severe bombing.
A half century later, the two Koreas agreed to re-link the railroads and operate trains to test the restored lines. Following the historic summit on June 15, 2000 between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the two Koreas began rounds of inter-Korean ministerial talks under which the two sides reached an agreement on the railroad project.
Construction began on both sides of the inter-Korean border to reconnect the Gyeongui and Donghae lines, and in 2003 the two Koreas celebrated the completion of the link.
However, it would take another four painful years before Seoul and Pyongyang finally got to test trains on the restored lines. The North Korean military was reluctant to guarantee the safety of passengers and trains traveling inside the Demilitarized Zone. This year on May 11, the North finally signed a safeguard agreement and the trains crossed the border in a successful test run.
Will the dream of the “Iron Silk Road” be realized
When the two Koreas’ railroads are completely reconnected and operated regularly, the transportation network is expected to boost the economies on both ends of the peninsula.
Initially, it will support the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North. Currently, goods produced in the Kaesong Industrial Complex are transported by ship to Incheon in the South through the North’s Nampo Harbor, costing $800 per 20-foot container and taking up to 10 days. Using the railroad will reduce the cost to $200 and transport time by one or two days.
Second, the rail network will connect Busan, South Korea’s southern port city, to Europe and the rest of Asia. By connecting Korea’s rail network with the Trans-Siberian Railway and Trans-China Railway, a long-time dream will be realized.
The expanded rail network will bring about a tremendous reduction in logistics costs. A train trip to Europe from Korea will be at least 7,000 kilometers shorter than a maritime route. The travel time will also be reduced by a week.
In 2005, the Blue House’s Committee on Northeast Asia estimated that the South will earn $100 million a year by linking the inter-Korean railroad with Russia. The North will profit $150 million annually, and Russia will be able to earn $300 million through the new rail network.

What are the obstacles?
The largest obstacle is the North’s unwillingness to agree on regular train operations, given the reclusive nature of the Kim Jong-il regime.
To operate trains regularly, the North must open its country further, which could bring about instability for the regime. North Korea is likely to use the railroad project as a bargaining chip to secure economic aid.
Finding the financial resources to fund the project will also be hard. For last month’s trial runs, the South spent 364.5 billion won ($392.6 million) for construction on its side, and another 180 billion won to provide materials and equipment to the North. Modernization of North Korea’s railroads will cost about 10 trillion won, experts have estimated.
Reaching an agreement on who will pay and how to come up with the needed resources will not be easy.
The two Koreas will also likely have difficulties deciding which railroad will form the principal axis for the network.
The North expressed a desire to develop the Donghae Line, which runs along the east coast of the peninsula, to minimize North Korean citizens’ contacts with the outside world.
South Korea, however, wants to make the best use out of the Gyeongui and Gyeongbu lines.
For the Donghae Line, construction work is also necessary to build the 127- kilometer section from Goseong-Jejin Station, located 25 kilometers south of the military demarcation line, to Gangneung Station in South Korea.


By Park Eun-sun JoongAng Ilbo [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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