Transitzüge: The German Model in an Argument for Trans-Korean Railways

February 16, 2016

 

 By NKR Intern Max Ernst

 

     A railway connection from Busan to Berlin, connecting South Korea’s southern port city with Europe via the trans-Siberian railroad, is a Korean dream that goes beyond mere political narratives of ‘Peace on the Korean Peninsula’ and ‘Unification of the two Koreas’. The “Iron Silk Road”[i] would entail substantial economic benefits for South Korea’s energy hungry, export oriented emerging economy. As will be shown in this article, however, not only South Koreans have all the reasons to dream of this infrastructure project; in fact all parties involved, including China, Russia, and most importantly North Korea, would benefit from a trans-Korean railroad. The reason that there is no railroad, or any other infrastructure cooperation between the two Koreas other than the Kaesong Industrial Complex, is of course originated in the prolonged Cold War of Northeast Asia, with the bamboo curtain well in place along the 38th parallel.

     There have been attempts before to bring on the way this promising infrastructure project nonetheless. In May 2006 both countries formally agreed to conduct test runs on two newly built tracks at the border, which would lead through the mine-infested demilitarized zone for the first time in over half a century. The day before the symbolic event was to take place, however, North Korea canceled the test runs stating that “conducting the test runs without resolving military tensions was as silly as planting beans in a minefield.”[ii] Almost ten years have passed and one may wonder why a second attempt has not been made. True, the same geopolitical factors are at play as ten years ago, as seventy years ago in fact, so what is the chance of actually accomplishing the seemingly impossible?

Well not all that low, or so will the remainder of this article argue; because it has been done before, of sorts. Some decades ago, there were trains crossing the demarcation line between capitalism and socialism headed for Berlin. Already in the 1950s had the two Germanies established ‘Transitverkehr’ (translates to transit-traffic) between West- and East Germany. This article will, after briefly outlining the opportunities for the involved parties, introduce Inter-German Transitverkehr as viable model for Inter- and Trans- Korean railway traffic.

 

Win-Win-Win-Win Scenario

     Before outlining the particularities of Inter-German transit railways, first the opportunities and benefits which an extended infrastructure cooperation in Northeast Asia and especially North Korea would bring shall be introduced. The working assumption and main selling point of such trans-Korean railway projects is that all parties involved, i.e. the two Koreas, Russia and China, would benefit from it.

It should not need much art of persuasion to make the point that South Korea would tremendously benefit from a land-line connection to two of her major export markets; China and the European Union.      Through a combination of geographic and geopolitical factors, however, South Korea is essentially and island, surrounded by sea (West, South, East), and an even less permissible enemy borderline in the North. For South Korea, the world’s 14th biggest economy, with exports worth 735 billion USD in 2014, or 3.12% of world exports,[iii] an effective infrastructure is paramount to get to foreign markets all the Samsung smartphones, refrigerators and TVs as well as Kia cars, virtually everything but Hyundai ships that can float out of Ulsan into the Pacific either way. In addition, South Korea’s economy is highly dependent on importing virtually everything but skilled workers, including raw materials, energy, and food products. To date, all of South Koreas imports and exports, excluding exports of services that can make the journey within the digital world, are facilitated by containerships and airplanes, which are either slower, or more expensive than railroads.

     The wins that Russia is in for are closely connected to the South Korean situation. As mentioned, South Korea is highly reliant on importing energy resources, and Russia is always looking to find markets for her abundant untapped gas and oil reserves. Furthermore, the symbiotic alliance of Russo-Korean infrastructure cooperation could be facilitated directly, i.e. without transiting a third country, as North Korea and Russia share a short common border in the Northeast.

 

 

Figure 1: Proposed Transportation Infrastructure Map ROK-Russia[iv]

 

     Figure 1 shows how a railroad from Seoul to Russia (Vladivostok and beyond) could connect through Wonsan and (not on the map) Chongjin, two major North Korean coastal cities and Najin (Rajin-Sonbong Economic Zone). The map furthermore suggests a Trans Korean Pipeline built alongside railways. This proposal sure stands to reason assuming that eat is easier to receive permission for construction and an increased cost effectivity to build the two infrastructure projects along the same corridor. Fossil fuels such as oil and gas sure can be transported on ships and railways, but are most effectively transported in pipelines, something that would benefit both Koreas and Russia. Finally, Russia would benefit from increasing transit fees on its trans-Siberian railroad between Busan (access for Japanese goods as well) all the way to Western Europe.[v]

     For China the advantages that come along with a trans-Korean railway are similar to the Korean case. China is both the biggest import and export partner of South Korea[vi] (Korean exports to China:  USD 145 billion / Korean imports from China: USD 90 billion in 2014). In addition to the cheaper trade, i.e. lower prices at which both economies could offer their products on each other’s respective markets, a railway line from Seoul over Pyongyang via Shenyang to both Beijing and China’s Northeast would enable Chinese enterprises to increase their economic cooperation with  not only South Korea, but also North Korea both with regard to trade, and increasingly in the area of investment. Often, it is reported, that Chinese investors complain about inaccessibility of potential greenfield investment sites (lacking roads, rails, and electricity outside the established economic zones) in North Korea in an otherwise inviting foreign investment environment.[vii] Here a spillover effect is to expected as Chinese companies would have access to not only South Korean markets, but also to North Korean markets, the North Korean labor force and North Korean untapped natural resources that North Korea is currently unable to produce given its technological backwardness. Finally, increased economic cooperation on government level, which transnational infrastructure projects entail, would bring together the two neighbors that, since Kim Jong Un’s reign have been lukewarm at best. This would lead to a promising normalization of Sino-DPRK relations away from Cold War alliance rhetoric to healthy diplomatic dialogue,[viii] hopefully bringing more stability to the region.

     North Korea, finally, could, in comparative terms, arguably benefit most from this proposed infrastructure cooperation. This is an important takeaway, since the North Korean leadership has been thus far, as mentioned above, the main obstacle to the envisioned railroad. The railway system itself is, in communist countries’ tradition, already the main means of both transportation and logistics in North Korea; railways account for an estimated 86% of North Korean cargo transport. Today North Korea has a railway network of about 5,200 km, a number all the more remarkable compared with the South Korean railway network of mere 3,200 km.[ix] This North Korean railway system however, is reportedly in a rather dire condition which tremendously decreases carrying capacity and speed of the railways. Despite these cautious measures, accidents are frequent, one of the most famous being the massive explosion in Yongchon in 2004 that wiped out an entire part of the city.[x]

     For a North Korea which, over the last decade, has been increasingly inviting FDI projects and seeks to increase its trade volume with the two giant neighbors to the North, newly built state of the art railways that connect North Korea’s natural and labor resources to the world markets are an essential asset to lift their economy on a growth-track. On a sidetone, the two biggest trading partners of the DPRK according to official data of 2009 are China (78.5%) followed by Germany (2%).[xi] It can be expected that the number for China would be even higher if we could include informal trade data into that statistic. In addition, the DPRK would be given access to cheap gas and oil, which she clearly needs,[xii] via the same way these fossil fuels make their way to South Korea, be it on railway or in pipelines. The bonus; just like in the case of Russia, North Korea would even benefit from the railway if it chooses to not use it through the additional income from transit fees.

Above considerations provide a brief overview on the possible economic benefits that the four nations could enjoy if they chose to cooperate on a trans-Korean railway. Another aspect that has not been addressed above is that of traveling. Besides the economic aspect of tourism, where the line of argumentation would look similar to that of trade; fast, cheap, clean and more of it, the argument can be made that a modern, cost effective railway system would increase the freedom of movement in Northeast Asia (including tourism in and out of North Korea), and therefore increase the livelihood of both Northeast Asians and international visitors alike.

 

GDR-Transitverkehr as Historic Model

     Above section has briefly introduced the economic benefits of a trans-Korean railway. That an infrastructure cooperation would bring prosperity to the Northeast Asian region of course does not come as a big surprise. As mentioned before, such cooperation had been discontinued before for geopolitical reasons, in short, the continued Cold War conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Against the common notion that a trans-Korean railway will therefore only happen after a Korean unification, i.e. the event in which the conflict would be settled, this article proposes that a railway from South Korea all the way through North Korean territory into China and Russia (and the rest of Eurasia from there) is very well possible, even at the height of a similar, arguably the same, conflict.

     The very origin of Transitverkehr goes back to the Potsdam Conference, where the four allies decreed that during Germany’s occupation Germany was to be regarded as one economic entity. To that end, the Allied Control Council had the responsibility to make possible traffic in-between the four occupied zones. Upon the emergence of the Cold War, however, the Soviet Control Commission drastically decreased freedom of movement within Soviet occupied territory. By 1955 allied occupation of West Germany officially ended, leaving behind two Germanies divided by an iron curtain. Especially with regard to the West Berlin sector, the question of Transitverkehr has understandably always been a pressing issue, as the incident of the Berlin Blockade and the Berlin airlift (1948-49) as response show.

     Real change did not come before a ratification of the Viermächte Abkommen (Four Power Agreement) on September 3, 1971, in which the Soviet Union guaranteed, for the first time since 1945, unrestricted transit-traffic between West-Berlin and West Germany on streets, rail- and water ways. The following Transit Agreement reached in December 1971 between representatives of FRG and GDR in Bonn, the first German-German signed treaty in history, regulated guidelines for border controls and the facilitation of cross border traffic through the territory of East Germany along a number of designated routes.[xiii] In this transit agreement, most notably, the GDR did partially renunciate her sovereign right to, for instance, arrest individuals on these transit routes. Although not essential to this article the author wants to underline that it was then possible for West Germans to drive with their private cars from West Germany to West-Berlin on East German highways, complete with designated “transit-roadhouses” (Transitraststätten) along the transit-roads, at which West Germans could eat and refuel their West-German cars but any contact with East-Germans beyond that was ‘undesired’ by East German authorities.[xiv]

     There were essentially two types of trains between West- and East Germany, namely “Interzonenzüge,” (inter-zone-trains) that actually made possible the travel from a number of West German cities to a number of East Germany cities,  complete with extensive passport and luggage controls at the borders, and “Transitzüge,” which really only went from West Germany nonstop through East German territory to West-Berlin. These transit-trains were always a precarious mission for the train conductors, as the trains were not supposed to stop anywhere on East German territory, preferably also not for unscheduled stops due to technical deficiencies or weather conditions. Given that these trains were laden with people and goods that did not possess the necessary travel documents to access GDR territory, this is well understandable. For more readings on FRG-GDR transit-traffic Behrendt[xv] and Delius[xvi] provide insightful accounts.

     With regard to the trans-Korean railway, the transit-train appears to be the model most viable for the Korean case. This assumption can be made based on the general similarity of the German situation in the 1970s and Korea today, that is a country divided by ideology and power politics. The German transit-train model’s advantage lies in its pragmatism, as so often with things German, in the way that the railway connection is, given the demand for it on both sides, facilitated within a bilateral cooperation framework. The cooperation is, given its general advantageousness to both sides, continued free of ‘carrots and sticks’ considerations and not used as leverage in other issues of military or nuclear proliferation character. Finally, the transit-train model can be used as a first step towards closer cooperation, in which North Korea could decide the point in the future where North Koreans could board these trains, making them essentially inter-zone-trains. That is to say that the other three parties, and virtually all of Eurasia, could already benefit from a connection of South Korea to the Chinese- and trans-Siberian railway system and North Korea could take the time that North Korean leadership deems necessary to bring on the way their own reform and opening policies.

 

Concluding Considerations

     This article tried to establish two main points to argue in favor of a trans-Korean railway: It is beneficial to all parties involved and, despite geopolitical complications, it is deemed to be feasible, as the German model shows. The wisdom of the past here is that a railway connection between two countries doesn’t need a peace treaty (although the author’s humble opinion is that a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula is overdue). All the railway connection needs is railways on both sides of the border and the disposition of both countries to let trains cross these borders. The advice, if any, that may be given to Korean leaders on both sides of the 38th parallel is thus this: Keep the politics out of railway projects, whether it’s sunshine- Nord- or whatnot politics.

 

Biographical Note

 

Maximillian Ernst is a Master’s Candidate in International Co-operation at yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies.  He is also an intern at North Korean Review

 

***The views herein do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of North Korean Review or Yonsei Insitute for North Korean Studies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Sang-Hun Choe, “South Korea struggles to open rails,” New York Times, June 12, 2006.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Maarten Van der Molen. “Country Report South Korea,” Rabobank, February 03, 2015. https://economics.rabobank.com/publications/2015/february/country-report-south-korea/.

[iv] John W Bauer, "Unlocking Russian Interests on the Korean Peninsula,” Parameters 39, no. 2 (2009): 52-62. 56.

[v] Sang-Hun Choe, “South Korea struggles to open rails.”

[vi] Michigan State University, “South Korea: Trade Statistics,” Global Edge, http://globaledge.msu.edu/countries/south-korea/tradestats.

[vii] Tony Michell, “Doing Business in North Korea: Obstacles and Opportunities, Present and Future,” Presentation at International Conference: Doing Business in North Korea: Opportunities and Challenges. January 28, 2015, Seoul.

[viii] For more on the normalization of Sino-DPRK relations see: Ren Xiao, "Toward a Normal State-to-State Relationship? China and the DPRK in Changing Northeast Asia,” North Korean Review 11, no. 2 (2015): 63-78.

[ix] Andrei Lankov, “The Beaten Track.” in: North of the DMZ: Essays on daily life in North Korea, McFarland, 2007. 156.

[x] Ibid. 157.

[xi] Rüdiger Frank. “Die Wirtschaft Nordkoreas: Status und Potenzial, Reformen und Gegenreformen,” in Lee, Eun-Jeung and Mosler, Hannes B. (ed.) Länderbericht Korea. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Bonn: 2015. 562.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] “Abkommen zwischen der Regierung der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik und der Regierung der Bundesrepublik Deutschland über den Transitverkehr von zivilen Personen und Gütern zwischen der Bundesrepublik Deutschland und Berlin (West) [Transitabkommen],” 17. Dezember 1971, Schlüsseldokumente zur Deutschen Geschichte im 20. Jahrhundert.

 http://www.1000dokumente.de/index.html?c=dokument_de&dokument=0248_tan&object=translation&st=&l=de.

[xiv] Bundesministerium für innerdeutsche Beziehungen (Hrsg.). 77 praktische Tipps für Besuche in der DDR und aus der DDR und für andere Kontakte hier und dort. 3., aktualisierte Auflage, Dezember 1983.

[xv]  Hans-Dieter Behrendt, Guten Tag, Passkontrolle der DDR, GNN-Verlag Schkeuditz.

[xvi] Friedrich Chr. Deliurs and Peter J. Lapp. Transit Westberlin. Ch. Links Verlag, 2. Aufl., Berlin 2000.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sang-Hun Choe, “South Korea struggles to open rails,” New York Times, June 12, 2006.[i]

Ibid.[ii]

Maarten Van der Molen. “Country Report South Korea,” Rabobank, February 03, 2015. https://economics.rabobank.com/publications/2015/february/country-report-south-korea/.[iii]

John W Bauer, "Unlocking Russian Interests on the Korean Peninsula,” Parameters 39, no. 2 (2009): 52-62. 56.[iv]

Sang-Hun Choe, “South Korea struggles to open rails.”[v]

Michigan State University, “South Korea: Trade Statistics,” Global Edge, http://globaledge.msu.edu/countries/south-korea/tradestats.[vi]

Tony Michell, “Doing Business in North Korea: Obstacles and Opportunities, Present and Future,” Presentation at International Conference: Doing Business in North Korea: Opportunities and Challenges. January 28, 2015, Seoul.[vii]

For more on the normalization of Sino-DPRK relations see: Ren Xiao, "Toward a Normal State-to-State Relationship? China and the DPRK in Changing Northeast Asia,” North Korean Review 11, no. 2 (2015): 63-78.[viii]

Andrei Lankov, “The Beaten Track.” in: North of the DMZ: Essays on daily life in North Korea, McFarland, 2007. 156.[ix]

Ibid. 157.[x]

Rüdiger Frank. “Die Wirtschaft Nordkoreas: Status und Potenzial, Reformen und Gegenreformen,” in Lee, Eun-Jeung and Mosler, Hannes B. (ed.) Länderbericht Korea. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Bonn: 2015. 562.[xi]

Ibid.[xii]

“Abkommen zwischen der Regierung der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik und der Regierung der Bundesrepublik Deutschland über den Transitverkehr von zivilen Personen und Gütern zwischen der Bundesrepublik Deutschland und Berlin (West) [Transitabkommen],” 17. Dezember 1971, Schlüsseldokumente zur Deutschen Geschichte im 20. Jahrhundert.[xiii]

 http://www.1000dokumente.de/index.html?c=dokument_de&dokument=0248_tan&object=translation&st=&l=de.

Bundesministerium für innerdeutsche Beziehungen (Hrsg.). 77 praktische Tipps für Besuche in der DDR und aus der DDR und für andere Kontakte hier und dort. 3., aktualisierte Auflage, Dezember 1983.[xiv]

 Hans-Dieter Behrendt, Guten Tag, Passkontrolle der DDR, GNN-Verlag Schkeuditz.[xv]

Friedrich Chr. Deliurs and Peter J. Lapp. Transit Westberlin. Ch. Links Verlag, 2. Aufl., Berlin [xvi]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wins that Russia is in for are closely connected to the South Korean situation. As mentioned, South Korea is highly reliant on importing energy resources, and Russia is always looking to find markets for her abundant untapped gas and oil reserves. Furthermore, the symbiotic alliance of Russo-Korean infrastructure cooperation could be facilitated directly, i.e. without transiting a third country, as North Korea and Russia share a short common border in the Northeast.

It should not need much art of persuasion to make the point that South Korea would tremendously benefit from a land-line connection to two of her major export markets; China and the European Union. Through a combination of geographic and geopolitical factors, however, South Korea is essentially and island, surrounded by sea (West, South, East), and an even less permissible enemy borderline in the North. For South Korea, the world’s 14th biggest economy, with exports worth 735 billion USD in 2014, or 3.12% of world exports,[iii] an effective infrastructure is paramount to get to foreign markets all the Samsung smartphones, refrigerators and TVs as well as Kia cars, virtually everything but Hyundai ships that can float out of Ulsan into the Pacific either way. In addition, South Korea’s economy is highly dependent on importing virtually everything but skilled workers, including raw materials, energy, and food products. To date, all of South Koreas imports and exports, excluding exports of services that can make the journey within the digital world, are facilitated by containerships and airplanes, which are either slower, or more expensive than railroads.

Before outlining the particularities of Inter-German transit railways, first the opportunities and benefits which an extended infrastructure cooperation in Northeast Asia and especially North Korea would bring shall be introduced. The working assumption and main selling point of such trans-Korean railway projects is that all parties involved, i.e. the two Koreas, Russia and China, would benefit from it.

Win-Win-Win-Win Scenario

 

Well not all that low, or so will the remainder of this article argue; because it has been done before, of sorts. Some decades ago, there were trains crossing the demarcation line between capitalism and socialism headed for Berlin. Already in the 1950s had the two Germanies established ‘Transitverkehr’ (translates to transit-traffic) between West- and East Germany. This article will, after briefly outlining the opportunities for the involved parties, introduce Inter-German Transitverkehr as viable model for Inter- and Trans- Korean railway traffic.

There have been attempts before to bring on the way this promising infrastructure project nonetheless. In May 2006 both countries formally agreed to conduct test runs on two newly built tracks at the border, which would lead through the mine-infested demilitarized zone for the first time in over half a century. The day before the symbolic event was to take place, however, North Korea canceled the test runs stating that “conducting the test runs without resolving military tensions was as silly as planting beans in a minefield.”[ii] Almost ten years have passed and one may wonder why a second attempt has not been made. True, the same geopolitical factors are at play as ten years ago, as seventy years ago in fact, so what is the chance of actually accomplishing the seemingly impossible?

A railway connection from Busan to Berlin, connecting South Korea’s southern port city with Europe via the trans-Siberian railroad, is a Korean dream that goes beyond mere political narratives of ‘Peace on the Korean Peninsula’ and ‘Unification of the two Koreas’. The “Iron Silk Road”[i] would entail substantial economic benefits for South Korea’s energy hungry, export oriented emerging economy. As will be shown in this article, however, not only South Koreans have all the reasons to dream of this infrastructure project; in fact all parties involved, including China, Russia, and most importantly North Korea, would benefit from a trans-Korean railroad. The reason that there is no railroad, or any other infrastructure cooperation between the two Koreas other than the Kaesong Industrial Complex, is of course originated in the prolonged Cold War of Northeast Asia, with the bamboo curtain well in place along the 38th parallel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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