[Viewpoint]The steel horse might not ride againA rusty steam locomotive with nowhere to go sat parked for more than five decades in the demilitarized zone. A sign next to the train read, “The steel horse wants to run.” Koreans cherished that rusty train and desired for it to run once again.
Finally, on Thursday, that wish was fulfilled. Diesel engines that might have been great grandsons of the rusty locomotive crossed the border on the east and west sides of the country.
A symbol of the war and division between the countries was reborn as a symbol of peace and unification. The long history of division ended and a new era of communications began.
The connection of the railroad was as touching and tear-provoking as the leaders of the two Koreas hugging each other at Sunan Airport in Pyongyang on June 13, 2000.
Nevertheless, let’s not get too excited. The reconnection of the severed railroad does not mean the South and the North are whole once again.
A political figure said the connection of the railroad felt like the unification was halfway through. While his emotion is understandable, it is certainly an exaggeration.
It is not like a train can leave Busan and head for Europe via Siberia right away, because the railways in the North are greatly backward. A budget of 545.4 billion won ($585 million) has been invested to rebuild the connected section, and the modernization of the Seoul-Shinuiju line is expected to cost an additional 3 trillion won.
The Donghae Line poses more serious problems. The reconnection construction linked the railway to Jejin, but there is no track at all in the 120-kilometer (75-mile) section between Jejin and Gangneung. That’s why a North Korean train came down to the South on the test run of the Donghae Line. The South has no track to send a train to Jejin, and there is no track between Samcheok and Pohang. Considering the compensation for the land that is needed, it is hard to estimate the cost of the Donghae Line construction.
Moreover, the test run of the reconnected railway is just a one-time trial. There is no promise that it will happen again. The North Korean military government has not been very cooperative regarding the test run, and it is hard to expect Pyongyang to respond promptly and actively to the request for regular train operations.
While the South Korean media covered the test run as major news, the North remained very quiet.
On the day of the railroad reconnection, North Korea’s Central Television briefly reported on the test run at the end of the 8 o’clock report without showing any footage of the scene. The Rodong Sinmun, the communist party newspaper of the North, ran a story about a rally intended to protest the Grand National Party and the pro-American conservatives who are encouraging confrontation.
There are many more problems other than the budget and Pyongyang’s lukewarm attitude.
If we are going to properly use the Seoul-Shinuiju line between the South and the North, the already heavy freight traffic around the capital region needs to be reduced.
The standardization of railroad-related terms between the South and the North, technological compatibilities, the arrangement of a signaling system, the style of train operations, the training of the North Korean workforce and the integration of the related systems will also take time to settle.
Let’s calm down. Let’s not get too excited about the reconnection of the severed artery after half a century. Now, it is time to calmly contemplate what should be transported to where. The “Iron Silk Road” is still far away; right now we only have empty tracks that are connected.
A newspaper ran a bold headline, “The steel horse wants to run across the continent.” Of course, we should someday be able to send trains to the wide continent. However, the time has not yet come. We must have a dream, but a dream cannot be everything. A symbol is meaningful, but substance must not be ignored in reality. The engine has completed a half-day test run and has no plans to run again.
Ask the engine what it wants to do. Does it want to run across the continent or does it want to run regularly, just like any other train?
*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Jo Dong-ho