The new connectivity to Eurasia opens the Korean peninsula to the world
Besides modernizing the Korean peninsula’s whole network, the railway cooperation between the two Koreas, ratified on June 26 last, will permit the connection to the Trans-Siberian Railway, which can be defined as the starting point of what is called “The Silk Road of the XXI Century” – in more precise terms the construction of a new “Silk Railway” as a bridge connecting two worlds, with a clear reference to the ancient Silk Road that united China with the territories of the Roman Empire. Instead, this rail network will connect South Korea to North Korea and – through the Trans-Siberian Railway – to Eurasia, so as to allow the fast movement of people, goods and resources.
This agreement seems to have been the real goal of the joint declaration between the two Koreas on April 27 last – the day of the historic Panmunjom Summit – to open up to the world.
It is a grand program that could represent the mainstay of a new economic roadmap for a sound and balanced development of the whole peninsula, which is also very rich in mineral resources.
A high-speed railway line which would connect North and South Korea to Russia, as well as a series of ambitious economic projects, were discussed extensively during the memorable meeting held in Singapore on June 12 last between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The issue involves the whole Korean peninsula, which needs more modern infrastructure that can connect it to the rest of Asia and, at the same time, let it seize the same opportunities as countries like Thailand which are growing at a very quick pace.
Also supported by China, which has promised adequate investment, the South Korean government has announced its intention to back the construction of major works that can also benefit North Korea, such as the construction of modern railways capable of connecting the Korean peninsula to China and Russia.
The inter-Korean railway infrastructure
The ambitious plan envisages the construction of a modern railway network for the entire peninsula, through innovative projects enabling to relaunch the region. The strategic axis of the initiative is precisely the implementation of a railway line uniting the two Koreas which, according to the “Panmunjom Declaration” signed by the two leaders at the end of the Summit, should connect Seoul, the capital of South Korea, to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, by crossing the city of Kaeseong.
Once reached Pyongyang, the railway line should continue up to the city of Shinuiji, North Korea, thus reaching the border with Dandong, China. Indeed, the railway link is only the first step of a much more ambitious project, which would require an important investment of approximately 35 billion US dollars.
The South Korean government’s plan envisages the construction of a high-speed railway line connecting Seoul to Shinuiju, passing through Pyongyang, to be built by using the existing tracks of six old lines that currently allow the transit of trains travelling at a speed of just 50 kilometres per hour.
However, there is a wider plan behind this roadmap: the Gyeongui line can connect to the Trans-China Railway in Shinuiji, which is connected to Europe, while the Donghae line is connected to the Trans-Siberian Railway in Hasan. Instead, the east coast railway network would be the shortest way to the main port of Wonsan, the Trans-Siberian Railway and Vladivostok.
The modernization of the network would be matched with the construction of new tunnels for the installation of railway networks and bridges, because the current structures rely on small cars and narrower tracks (narrow-gauge) than those of a modern high-speed railway network.
High-speed rail networks and global trade
The plan of the “New Economic Map of the Korean Peninsula” fits into the broader context of the great project initially known as “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) – promoted by the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, with a view to improving global governance through international cooperation – which is designed to integrating Asia and Europe by building six land and sea transport corridors, through which goods, technologies and culture will circulate.
The “New Economic Map of the Korean Peninsula” is a major project for relaunching the region which depends on two components: geopolitical and diplomatic, on the one hand, structural and economic, on the other, because the huge infrastructure of high-speed rail networks will not only connect the two Koreas, but will also strengthen the link between the peninsula and the rest of Asia, particularly China and Russia. This plan should turn the region into a strategic hub for world trade, thus making it become a transit area for the goods travelling from East Asia to Europe.
These lines would connect the two countries to China, on one side, and to the Trans-Siberian Railway, which crosses Russia, on the other, thus enabling the goods coming from the Korean peninsula to reach Europe.
Moreover, the transit of the new trains will be matched by territorial development – especially where the new stops are located.
One of the foreseen stretches, the Pyongra Line, is expected to connect the two largest cities of the South, namely Seoul and Busan, to Chongjin, the third largest city in North Korea, and to the industrial district of Rajin, which can boast the highest per capita GDP in the country.
These high-speed trains will become a crucial factor of economic development, both globally and nationally, considering that currently the development of the railway system can generate real benefits in terms of mobility, because it is viewed as an essential tool for growth, since it is powered by electricity and not by fossil fuels, which instead fuel road and air transport.
The railway expert, Mark Smith, has put together several statistics on his website, “The Man in Seat 61”, including an independent study commissioned by Eurostar on the environmental impact of travelling by train. The reduction of carbon emissions per passenger achieved by taking a train instead of an airplane can even reach 90%.
I believe that the modernization of the railway system in the whole Korean peninsula will have a significant impact and, above all, a direct effect on the economy of transport and hence on the movement of goods.
Both the economic impact and the geopolitical effects, however, open up further opportunities and initiatives after the successful outcome of the peace negotiations between the two countries, together with the regained stability of a region which is now also linked to international business interests, first of all China’s and Russia’s.
Probably the new “wise diplomacy” shrewdly initiated by Marshal Kim Jong Un will provide opportunities for new and important stability-related goals, as well as a greater boost to the economy of the entire peninsula.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France