The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in unveiled a bold and ambitious vision for the future of the Korean Peninsula in his Aug. 15 Liberation Day address. He envisioned a so-called East Asian Railroad Community to build into a regional energy and economic bloc that can eventually lead to a new multinational security regimen. He modeled his vision after the European Coal and Steel Community that sprouted in 1951 following World War II and eventually became the European Union.
Unfortunately, the chances of a rail linkup leading to something like the EU in this part of the continent are zero. A rail connecting China and Japan won’t likely be embraced by those two countries. Even with them onboard, hoping for an eventual development of a multinational security system would be a midsummer night’s dream.
The idea of train tracks cutting through the two Koreas and across China and Russia is, in fact, nothing new. It was floated by governments of all stripes including those of Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and Park Geun-hye under different catchphrases such a Peace and Prosperity Policy or the Eurasia Initiative.
The project failed to take off because of the costs and North Korea’s lack of interest. The South’s rail institute studied the rail infrastructure in North Korea in 2009. Because they were mostly left unattended for more than 60 years, the tracks were rusted and trains run at a maximum speed of 40 to 50 kilometers per hour (24 to 31 miles per hour). Many areas required entirely new tracks for safety reasons. In short, the railroad must be entirely rebuilt in order to accommodate anything like a bullet train from the South. That would cost 38 trillion won ($33.9 billion) at maximum. The costs could come down if foreign capital can be pulled in. But unless North Korea’s nuclear threat is entirely removed, no foreign entity would stake money in the North.
It is also a wishful thinking that a rail system connecting the two Koreas and China and Russia could lead to communal union and lasting peace in the region. The six European nations, especially archrivals Germany and France, joined forces because they had the Soviet Union as their common enemy. But there is no common enemy that can bind and keep East Asian members committed to a single community.
Moreover, the United States, whose endorsement is crucial for the launch of any multinational establishment, is hardly thrilled about the idea. Washington responded that any inter-Korean relationship “cannot advance separately from resolving North Korea’s nuclear program” when asked about the rail project.
An honest broker must possess three virtues, according to former German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Honesty is essential. The broker should bear some of the inconvenience and his mediation must facilitate a resolution.
Seoul is suspected of being overly soft on Pyongyang to the extent of turning a blind eye to an illicit trade in banned North Korean coal. The rail project described by Moon in his Liberation Day speech would benefit North Korea most. If Seoul’s ideas for peace are seen as being mostly helpful to North Korea, Seoul may not be trusted as a mediator, let alone invited to take the wheel in any area as complicated as inter-Korean relations and U.S.-North Korea nuclear negotiations.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 21. Page 30