Stuck at a level crossing

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Stuck at a level crossing


Ahn Byung-min
The author is a senior research fellow of the Korea Transport Institute.

The expression, “twists and turns,” is used to describe a complicated situation. Last week, the two Koreas finally began a joint survey on inter-Korean railways after a series of twists and turns.

This spring, the leaders of the two Koreas agreed to link the Donghae Line and Gyeongui Line and to modernize them, but the joint site inspection for the project only began months later when the winter came. According to the original plan, the joint survey should have started on Aug. 22, but the United Nations Command in South Korea did not authorize passage over the military demarcation line. As a result, the two Koreas wasted three months. This is just a glimpse into the difficulties surrounding the joint inspection for the inter-Korean railway project.

Some say that the UN’s decision to lift sanctions on the North is also a temporary measure. The groundbreaking ceremony, scheduled to take place after the survey, requires another exemption, they say. Based on various circumstances, the future of the project is unlikely to be smooth.

As we watch the South Korean inspection team leave for the North, hope and insecurity, despair and expectation all come together. Fortunately, the North is responding aggressively: the wording of the Panmunjom Declaration and the joint declaration from the Pyongyang summit also indicate North Korea’s strong willingness to take part in reconnecting and renovating its old railway system.

For the North, railways have a very special meaning. Kim Il Sung, the North’s late founder, once said that operating railways is like circulating blood in a human body. The North Korean law governing the railways calls the railroads “the artery of the country” and a “precious trophy earned through a revolution.” Of all the laws of the North, land and railways are the only two subjects that were defined as a “trophy of revolution.”

It must be humiliating for North Korea that the railways have come to look like a clogged artery, a subject of discomfort and malfunctioning. Building convenient and well-maintained railways through the two Koreas’ cooperation must have been a hard choice for North Korea, given its pride.

And yet, it is concerning that North Korea is approaching the project without any change from the past. The two Koreas need to conduct a joint survey on the 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) of railways and 260 kilometers of roads in the North. In the railways’ case, it is equivalent to one-third of the railroads in the South.

The North demands that the survey be completed within 16 days, making it difficult to understand Pyongyang’s true intentions. To build speedy, safe and competitive railways, North Korea should have demanded additional and more meticulous inspections.

In 2001, Russia and North Korea conducted a joint survey of 781 kilometers of railways linking the Tumen River, Rajin, Hungnam, Gowon and Pyonggang — the process took three months.

In 2003, another survey was conducted for 37 days on the 54-kilometer segment between Tumen River Station and Rajin Port. The North decided to allow just 16 days for the inter-Korean survey. That is an inappropriate attitude for a business partner.

More worrisome is the slow progress in the denuclearization negotiation and a cynical perception toward the railway project. It is extremely frustrating to see the tug of war between Pyongyang and Washington, each demanding that the other act first.

We also need to be cautious about the rosy blueprint of the inter-Korean railway project. In the past, South Korea promoted a slogan that the Gyeongui Line is not just a railway, but an economy of its own. But the project lost its glory because of the disappointing operation outcome of the inter-Korean cargo trains.

From December 2007 to November 2008, only 448 trips were made by cargo trains between Dorasan Station of the South and Panmun Station of the North. Of those, 17 trains carried cargo and just 76 containers crossed the border. It ended up as nothing more than propaganda.

Expectations are high about the plan to link the two Koreas’ railways because we will secure the status as the main logistics provider of the continent. Starting in January, South Korea will join the 29-member Organization for Cooperation of Railways. North Korea, China and Russia are also members of the organization.

There are many tasks to be resolved through the joint railway survey. It is urgent to create a consensus on the concept, goal and method of modernization. The two Koreas also need to standardize the power, communication, signals and train car systems that were separately built since the Korean War.

The two Koreas need have a serious discussion on the financing of astronomical construction expenses, investment priorities and role divisions. Most of all, changes to the surrounding environment, the project’s economic viability, reciprocity and international norms all need to be reflected.

The survey team’s train left for North Korea carrying many challenges and tasks. We hope the train will return with hope and expectations, not insecurity and frustration.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 3, Page 29
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