War and Peace and Trains: Geopolitics and railways on the Korean peninsula

Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in at the recent inter-Korean summit. Image: Blue House, South Korea.

At their recent meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in discussed how to avoid a conflict that could kill millions, and expressed their hope to one day unite the Korean peninsula after 70 years of division. More importantly they also talked about trains.

While stood in front of a picture of Mount Baekdu, Moon Jae-in remarked that he would like to visit the volcano. Kim Jong Un, who is the member of the Supreme People’s Assembly for Mount Baekdu, responded that the poor quality of infrastructure would make for an uncomfortable journey. Moon gave Kim his plans for rectifying this situation on a thumb drive that included this map:

Source: the Democratic Party of South Korea.

The dark grey silver area in the top right corner is Russia. The lighter shaded large area at the top is China, and the lightest era at the bottom is Korea, with the dotted line showing the border between North and South.

The red line shows a planned high speed railway line from the South Korean border linking Seoul to Pyongyang and Dandong – providing another route on the main trade route out of North Korea. It also links up to a high-speed rail route to Beijing. The black lines are plans to upgrade existing North Korean railways to modern 100kmh ones.

The eastern border crossing would link the two Koreas to China’s Autonomous Korean Prefecture, and to Vladivostok. The central connection to China is a little less easy to understand: it would link Korea to the small resort town of Jian and very little else. 


As exciting as the map is the sad truth is it probably isn’t going to happen. It’s probably not even going to get started.

It is very easy to see how South Korea would gain if this plan was implemented – mostly through new trade routes to Russia and, especially, China. And  decent rail network within North Korea may help spread prosperity and power in the country away from Pyongyang, and therefore away from North Korea’s leaders.

It is less easy to see what the North Korean government would gain. North Korea still has significant restrictions on freedom of movement for its own people, at least on paper. It is therefore unlikely its government would welcome foreigners moving freely around the country in any great numbers.

It would also have handed one of their main implements of control of their population to an enemy state. Trains built with South Korean capital and South Korean technology speeding through fields ploughed by oxen would serve as a stark demonstration of the South’s economic superiority.

History also suggests that these efforts will end in failure. While this is the first detailed map, it is not the first time that Inter-Korean summits have produced ambitious plans for rail developments in North Korea. Despite signing agreements to develop transport infrastructure in 2000 and 2007, there have still never been regular passenger trains between North and South Korea.

Each of South Korea’s plans has an unhappy recent precedent, too In 2014 Russian mining giant Mostovik announced plans to spend $35bn upgrading North Korea’s railways in return for mineral rights. China has long planned to improve the links between the city of Dandong and the North Korean city of Sinuiju, currently joined by a bridge with a single track railway and a single lane road.  To upgrade this, China spent $250m building the New Yalu River Bridge in 2011: all the North Koreans had to do was link it to their road network. The bridge still terminates in a field on the North Korean side.

The Chinese built bridge to nowhere near Dandong, China and Sinuiju, North Korea. Image: Wikicommons.

Even South Korea’s plan to build a rail link between the small towns of Jian, China and Manpo, North Korea has an unhappy precedent. China paid for a road crossing in 2012. It was 2016 before the North Koreans allowed the first vehicles to cross.

If South Korea is to enjoy any success with transport projects in North Korea, it will almost certainly need to think smaller. North Korea has always preferred to use special economic zones when dealing with outside investment. The Rason Special Economic zone in North Korea’s north-east is the richest province in the country. China build a road into the region, which is served by regular buses from several Chinese towns, and Russian Railways operated a freight railway to the zone’s ports until it was closed by sanctions. There are also plans to build a road bridge from Russia.

The South Koreans themselves have had some moderate success with infrastructure project in North Korea in the past. The country operated freight trains into the Kaesong Industrial Park until it closed in 2016. Another joint project that could be re-opened would be the Guemgangsan tourist resort – closed after a North Korean soldier murdered a South Korean tourist 2008 – which was served by coaches from the south.

A good initial step might be a scheduled flight from South Korea to Wonsan.  Kim Jong Un has been keen to promote Wonsan as a tourist destination and has built an international standard airport there at great expense, though it appeared to receive only one flight in the last three years, until foreign journalists landed there on their way to witness the dismantling of the Pyunggye-ri nuclear test site.

Economic engagement with North Korea proceeds at a pace of North Korea’s choosing, and transport is no different. Which means it will be a long time until trains run from Seoul to Pyongyang.

Michael Hill also writes the Korea Elections blog.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.