Changes in inter-Korean Relations – South Korea, let’s head North!
A South Korean train passes over a cross-border railway bridge near the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) in Paju, north of Seoul on August 21, 2009. (AFP Photo) © AFP
It was last May on the Trans-Siberian train. I remember the birch forests and lakes, sparse houses, and the sunset that set on the Siberian plains. As someone who desires unification, I hoped that the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR) and the Trans-Korean Railway (TKR) would become connected through North Korea and Eurasia, eventually reaching Europe. Despite the Obama administration’s strategic patience with North Korea in late 2017, North Korea continued their missile tests to complete their nuclear weaponry. After Donald Trump’s harsh sanctions and criticism against North Korea, the two were in a state of tension that could break out into war at any moment. Within this tension, the Korean peninsula entered spring of 2018.
The Korean Peninsula entered spring in the wake of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize after 12 years of presidential envoy to North Korea, commitment to stop nuclear provocations, North Korea’s understanding of ROK-US military training at the same level as in previous years, and the April inter-Korean summit at the House of Peace in South Korea all indicate an improvement on building peace on the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, following the interview with the envoy to North Korea and President Trump in May, Kim Jong-un’s summit with President Trump and its North American working-level contacts have initiated momentum for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Since taking office in December 2011 as the Chairman of the National Defense Commission, Kim Jong-un has not had any summit meeting. As such, it seems very encouraging that the counterpart of the first presidential summit in six years was the President of the Republic of Korea.
Following the visit to the North Korean presidential envoy, North Korea’s Northern Economic Cooperation Committee will visit the Russian Trans-Siberian Railway. The Trans-Siberian Railway is the world’s longest railway, spanning 9,288 km, with a 54 km section between Khasan railway station in Russia and Najin station in North Korea. The Northern Economic Cooperation Committee’s visit will take place in the Khasan-Najin route in Vladivostok, the far east of Russia. This visit is also part of the railroad network linkage project in President Moon’s ‘Nine-bridge strategy.’
South Korea’s northern policy began in the early 1990’s after the end of the Cold War, and this beginning established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1990. Since then, the South Korean government have pursued the northern policy in various ways, but many projects could not be carried out in the review stage due to complications with changes in the international status quo and North Korea’s nuclear program. In terms of trade, Russia and South Korea consist of 1.7% of total trade. The Northern Economic Cooperation Committee’s visit to the Trans-Siberian Railway symbolizes inter-Korean or inter-Russian and Korean economic cooperation. The connection of railroads opens up new logistics routes that connects the continental economy and land logistics networks. If the logistics road opens, people can mobilize and travel naturally, and the scope of economic activity of the Republic of Korea will become connected to the Eurasian continent. In addition, energy cooperation in gas and oil pipelines will also gain momentum.
As part of his new Easter plan, Putin has hoped to supply South Korea with natural gas pipelines that run through North Korea. At the 2011 North Korea-Russia summit, Kim Jong-Il agreed to such proposals regarding the pipelines. That Russia’s PNG pipelines passes through North Korea indicates Russia’s need to protect its assets in the North and signals that Russia can perhaps contribute to peace on the Peninsula. In addition, South Korea can be supplied stable PNG’s instead of expensive liquefied natural gas, while North Korea can receive a determined amount of PNG or compensation in exchange for pipeline passage. The participation of North Korea in Northeast Asia’s energy talks can bring about cooperation, which has been stalled due to North Korea’s nuclear program.
With the April 2018 summit, South and North Korea made material and practical contacts with controversial issues like the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the divided families of the Korean peninsula. Also, there will be a hotline set up between the presidential office of the Blue House and Chairman Kim Jong-un, signifying that practical and concrete discussions between the two leaders are open and possible. While a U.S. government spokesperson has stated that talks would only take place if North Korea takes concrete and verifiable measures, President Trump revealed that progress has taken place in relations with North Korea, suggesting that an agreement is being formed between the two.
Multiple negotiations and compromises will have to be made until UN sanctions are lifted and economic cooperation between North and South Korea is executed. However, until such tangible results are achieved, independent and voluntary support for the peace of the Korean Peninsula, in addition to the faith and support of the people, will be essential in all processes. The government will have to focus on and exert diplomatic capacity for the cooperation of neighboring powers, with the goal of the Six-party talks.
It is my wish that South Korea take this opportunity to establish peace on the Korean Peninsula, contribute to the coexistence and prosperity of Northeast Asia, and initiate the North’s Silk Road by bringing about Northern economic cooperation. I hope that my dream of taking a train that runs through the Korean Peninsula into the Eurasian Transcontinental or seeing pipelines that run through North Korea will someday become a reality.
***The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies or North Korean Review.