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.

 
 
 
 

Free public transport won’t work – unless we get rid of the drivers

Gissa lift mate. Image: Fraser Elliott/creative commons.

The idea of free public transport has clear appeal. Cities in France; and Germany; are already considering such proposals, to reduce traffic and air pollution. And in the UK, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn declared that he would introduce free bus travel for under-25s, to complement the passes already available to senior citizens.

But the evidence suggests that offering free public transport causes headaches for local authorities – and may not be an effective way of getting commuters to stop driving cars. Tallinn, capital of Estonia, introduced free public transport for residents in 2013. But a 2014 survey showed that most of the people who switched to public transport had previously walked or cycled, rather than driven. A further survey in 2017 showed that patronage had increased by only 20 per cent over four years.

The April 2018 edition of German trade publication Stadtverkehr claims that the only cost effective way to get car drivers to switch to public transport is to couple reasonably priced transit with severe traffic restraints. For example, in the English city of Sheffield, attractive bus fares and timetables used to keep cars out of the city centre. From the 1970s, until the service was deregulated in 1986, there was simply no need for residents to drive into Sheffield.

Finding the funds

The biggest drawback to free public transport schemes is the lack of funds from fares to cover maintenance and upgrades. In Tallinn, for example, the city’s inadequate tram system will eventually require capital for a complete renewal – or face closure. Hasselt, a Belgian town with a population of 70,000, offered free bus travel for 16 years until 2013, but eventually scrapped it when costs became unsustainable.

Paris, meanwhile, has already banned the most polluting vehicles and offered free public transport for a few days each year when pollution has reached dangerous levels due to atmospheric conditions. But according to an article in the June 2018 edition of Today’s Railways EU, traffic is rarely reduced more than 10 per cent on these days, and the long term shift to other forms of transport is minimal.

In the UK, free bus travel for senior citizens has hastened the demise of many rural and intercity services. Many local authorities have diverted support away from rural, evening and weekend services, to the concessionary fares budget. During interviews with BBC Radio 4, younger people – who rely on buses to get to work or go out on the evenings and weekends – complained that services had been axed to offer senior citizens free travel during daytime on weekdays.

But irrespective of your age, health or prosperity, there is no point in having a free bus pass if there are no buses to use it on. As bus services are further deregulated in the UK, there will continue to be pointless oversupply on some corridors, while other areas struggle to see more than a few buses per week – if any at all.


Driverless minibuses

The development of autonomous electric minibuses could be a game changer, especially if a manufacturer is prepared to lease them on favourable terms. Local authorities could pilot a scheme whereby the bus is “hailed” by smart phone 15 to 30 minutes before departure. Indeed, tests for autonomous on-demand services are already underway in cities across the US, UK; and Europe;.

Once the expensive and restrictive labour element is removed from the operating costs, there is no reason why such services could not be offered free of charge to all users. In the urban core – within a 10km radius of a city centre – these services could run 24/7. Further afield, in the suburbs, a daily service from 6am until midnight would probably be sufficient to compete with the private car.

Autonomous minibuses could automatically connect with city buses and trains, which would continue to be staffed and paid for by fares. The minibuses would provide a “last mile” service, taking people within easy walking distance of their destination. In urban areas, all residential and business premises would be within 200m of a minibus stop, extending to 500m in suburban areas and 1km in rural areas.

At off peak times, the minibuses could replace some conventional bus services to avoid the inefficiencies created when a 70 passenger bus is used to transport only ten people on an evening or Sunday service.

To prevent abuse of the minibuses, passengers would scan their phones on boarding to confirm the booking. If they didn’t, a penalty could be collected automatically from their phone. CCTV could identify any disruptive passengers and refuse further bookings. Meanwhile, taxis would continue to prosper from those people willing to pay for a personal door-to-door service.

Public transit systems, as we know them today, would struggle to deliver a sustainable free service. But there’s a real possibility that the autonomous vehicles of tomorrow could do just that.

John Disney, Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.