North Korean government officials favorably view the inter-Korean railway project currently being pushed for by the South Korean government, Daily NK sources in the country have reported.
The inter-Korean railway project involves constructing a railway line from Gangnung to Jejin just below the 38th Parallel in South Korea and would extend the country’s existing Donghae Line railway. The project is part of the broader Moon Jae In government’s proposed “East Asian Railway Community” that would connect Busan to Russia and even Europe by way of North Korea.
On Apr. 23, South Korea’s unification ministry recognized the Donghae Line Railway extension project as related to inter-Korean exchange and cooperation, effectively exempting the project from having to undergo a “preliminary feasibility investigation.”
The same day, South Korean unification minister Kim Yeon-chul stated during a meeting of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Promotion Council that there is a need to “maintain” the drive in inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation to ensure inter-Korean relations improve.
“The perspective of North Korean officials is that if South Korea helps modernize North Korea’s deteriorating railways – and if this helps us generate profit and enables us to transport personnel and goods to Russia – then there is no reason why North Korea should be opposed to the project,” a Pyongyang-based source told Daily NK on May 5.
“They see the railway connection between North and South Korea as an opportunity to acquire more foreign capital,” another high-ranking government official in the country told Daily NK.
“It may be described as a joint project between North and South Korea, but the way it’s actually viewed here is that North Korea only needs to provide the labor, and South Korea will do the rest – essentially, it’s a situation that can only benefit North Korea,” he added.
North Korean officials also appear to think that a halt in the construction of the inter-Korean railway project due to a change in South Korea’s government or inter-Korean conflict will not be a problem for North Korea.
“Even if South Korea were to suddenly stop cooperating at some point in the future – just like what happened with the Kaesong Industrial Complex – they can’t dismantle a railway that’s already built,” the source said. ““Even if the project should come to a halt at some point, in terms of transportation infrastructure, this is only a gain for North Korea.”
North Korea’s military facilities on the country’s eastern coast are likely to present obstacles to the inter-Korean railway project. While the military facilities could be moved on orders of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the country could demand that the railway be moved inland from the coast.
“[The North Korean government] would propose building the railway around all the military barracks, airstrips and other military zones in the area,” the source explained, adding, “South Korea would have to take on the burden of moving the tracks inland or digging long tunnels through mountains.”
While North Korean officials may favorably view the inter-Korean railway project from both a political and economic perspective, they are reportedly of the belief that it is “not the right time” to move ahead with it.
“All the decisions are Kim Jong Un’s to make, so the opinions of officials aren’t important. North Korea isn’t even considering the idea right now,” the source said.
In other words, North Korean authorities do not appear ready to cooperate with South Korea on inter-Korean projects, including the railway line, and this may be related to North Korea’s stance on US-North Korean relations, where it has opted to focus on “self-reliance” rather than negotiate for the lifting of international sanctions.
If the above holds true, what might explain the fact that Kim Jong Un signed an agreement in Panmunjom on Apr. 27, 2018, agreeing to the construction and modernization of a railway connecting North and South Korea?
“Internally, the opinion in North Korea is that we need[ed] to put on a show of reconciliation with South Korea to be able to negotiate with the US for the lifting of sanctions,” the source explained.
North Korean officials also reportedly have concerns that the start of a joint railway construction project may expose hard truths about North Korean society.
“Once the construction begins, North Koreans will inevitably witness South Korea’s technology and money at work,” the source said. “This is likely to have an immense ideological impact on North Koreans, who have been made to believe that North Korea’s technologies are superior.”
*Translated by Violet Kim
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