[The Future is Now] Trains could link South Korea to the world again

The dream is alive but everything depends on denuclearization of North Korea

Oct 25,2018
A train returns to Dorasan Station on the southern side of the demilitarized zone from Kaesong Station on the northern side during a test run on the Gyeongeui Line on May 17, 2007. [YONHAP]
At the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Sohn Kee-chung won gold in the marathon. As Korea was a colony of Japan, Sohn competed on the Japanese team. He became famous for his record-breaking race - but also for refusing to acknowledge the Japanese anthem at the award ceremony and trying to conceal the Japanese flag on his uniform with a bouquet.

To get to Berlin, the 24-year-old embarked from Busan Station and changed trains in Seoul, where he would have seen a board showing the departure and arrival times for trains going vast distances. His journey across the vast Siberian continent took him two weeks.

It’s one of the ironies of geopolitics that Koreans in the Age of Steam had travel options unavailable in the post-Space Age.

But since the division of the two Koreas at the 38th parallel at the end of World War II, South Korea has been a virtual island. Going anywhere requires a trip by ship or plane. Land journeys stop at the demilitarized zone.

Now the prospect of restoring by-gone, long-haul travel routes is rising with North Korea’s denuclearization commitment.

In the Panmunjom Declaration, the product of the April 27 inter-Korean summit, the leaders of the two Koreas agreed to “adopt practical steps towards the connection and modernization of the railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor as well as between Seoul and Sinuiju for their utilization.”

Modernizing and reconnecting railways between Seoul and Sinuiju, North Korea’s furthest northwestern city on the border with China, could allow people to make a trip from Sinuiju to Beijing on the Trans-China Railway.

From Beijing, one can make a trip across the Chinese mainland to Russia via the same Trans-China Railway or take the Trans-Mongolian Railway, which will take a passenger to Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, where he or she can transfer to the Trans-Siberian Railway, which makes the 5,200-kilometer (3,231 miles) run to Moscow, and then travel on to Europe.

Another envisioned route is the Donghae Line, which would bring a passenger from Busan to North Korea’s northeastern city of Rajin. A 54-kilometer railway links Rajin with the eastern Russian border town of Khasan. From Khasan, one can travel to Moscow and beyond on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

In other words, re-connecting and modernizing railways between the two Koreas would bring about a fundamental change in the way South Koreans recognize their country in terms of geographical position - and how they see their place in the world.

If the connections are completed, the route connecting Europe to the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Trans-Korean Railway would become the longest train network in the world, covering nearly 10,000 kilometers.

This is in line with President Moon Jae-in’s New Northern Policy, a major policy initiative seeking to maximize the economic potential of South Korea, Asia’s fourth largest economy, by realizing the free movement of people and freight beyond the North Korean border to reach as far as Europe.

Left: Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, is listed on an electronic display board as a final destination at Yongsan Station in Seoul on June 3 during a special event commemorating a pastor, Moon Ik-hwan, who dedicated his life to the reunification of the two Koreas. Right: A special Seoul-Pyongyang ticket issued for the June 3 event. [YONHAP]
Economic benefits

“If railways between the two Koreas and China are connected, it will lead to a dramatic increase in total trade volume with China because of a reduction in time and costs to deliver goods, though it is hard to estimate how much it will increase at this point,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul specializing in North Korea affairs.

“The South could also benefit from receiving some trade goods from China’s Dalian Port via re-connected railways, since the Dalian Port has reached its maximum capacity for exports,” Cheong said. “If we could receive China’s goods via an envisioned trans-Korea rail system to export from ports here, it will offer an opportunity for the South Korean shipping businesses.”

In President Moon’s Liberation Day speech on Aug. 15, he said it was his “goal” to hold groundbreaking ceremonies for reconnecting railroads and roads between the two Koreas by the year’s end, describing such reconnections as the “beginning of mutual prosperity.”

At a high-level meeting on Oct. 15, South and North Korea agreed to hold the ceremony between late November and early December. The two sides also agreed to jointly examine railways along the Yellow Sea from late this month and kick off similar work on railways along the East Sea from early November.

Cheong of the Sejong Institute said if such an inter-Korean railway project was realized, it would present a huge economic boon for far-flung Chinese, Mongolian and Russian cities as well.

South Korea, he said, could see “a huge increase in the number of Chinese tourists” getting off trains at Seoul Station, whose spending will be a fillip to the local economy.

China’s Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces and areas spanning far-east Russia and the inner eastern region of Mongolia, which the re-connected railway lines will give access to, are home to nearly 120 million people and are rich in natural resources such as natural gas.

Experts estimate the cost of freight transport between South Korea and China, Russia and other countries in the Eurasian region could be cut as much as four times with new rail systems. Transporting goods via train is much more efficient and time-saving than by freight ship.

Na Hee-sung, a senior researcher at the Korea Railroad Research Institute (KRRI), estimated in a research paper published by the Korea Development Institute in 2014 that 20 to 30 million tons of freight per year could be carried along the Gyeongui Line, which would run from Gaesong to Pyongyang to Sinuiju. For the Donghae Line, he estimated approximately 10 to 20 million tons of freight could be transported per year by 2030.


Many hurdles remain for a trans-Korea railway project to become any kind of reality. Most immediately, South Korean and United Nations sanctions prohibiting the supply of capital into or investments to North Korea must be lifted and, presumably, that requires Pyongyang to make real its denuclearization commitment. Other nations such as the U.S. and Japan have their own sanctions on the North.

“We have no concrete plans related to the trans-Korea railway system as of now since political issues have to be resolved first,” said an official at a state-run rail agency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The official said there is nothing rail authorities can do at the moment in respect to the railway project given the sanctions on the North. But if sanctions are lifted and a trans-Korea railway project proceeds, the Korea Rail Network Authority, a government-owned agency, would take charge of all modernization and construction work while the Korea Railroad Corporation would manage operations, the official noted.

Another challenge is the cost of modernizing North Korea’s railways, which experts say should be steep considering their poor condition.

“While it is true that North Korea has about 1.5 times more railway track than the South (excluding subway systems), most lines have not had any refurbishment done for the past 20 years or so,” said Ahn Young-hoon, a technical support engineer for infrastructure development at GS Engineering & Construction and former official at the Korean National Railroad, the predecessor of Korail.

“In South Korea, we have trains traveling at well above 200 kilometers per hour, but to our knowledge, most trains in the North can travel at maximum speeds of about 40 to 50 kilometers per hour,” he said.

“We must refurbish and reform existing rails in the North so that South Korean trains can travel at least about 100 kilometers per hour in North Korean territory,” he continued.

According to Ahn, who was involved in a government project in the early 1990s to adopt high-speed train technology from France, said if the government wants to use high-speed trains in the North, an entire new railway system will be needed. Existing lines cannot be used for high speed-trains.

“The railway project for the North should be implemented in gradual stages,” said Ahn. “In the short term, we should focus on reforming outdated railways in the North so that a train can travel up to 100 kilometers an hour. After we finish that mission, we can start thinking about installing an entirely new railway suitable for trains that can run over 300 kilometers an hour.”

Cost estimates vary widely and may be anyone’s guess until the project gets underway.

Na of the KRRI estimated that it will cost 7.8 trillion won ($6.8 billion) to modernize the Gyeongui Line if expenses are calculated based on South Korea’s formula for cost of construction. After modernization, all trains will be capable of traveling up to 100 kilometers per hour.

For the Donghae Line, Na estimated it would cost 14.7 trillion won to modernize and reconnect railroads between the South Korean border town of Goseong County in Gangwon all the way north to Tumen River in the North on the border with China.

But he noted in his paper that total construction costs “could be reduced by four times” when taking into account the North’s cheap labor and its state-owned property.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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