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.

 
 
 
 

British television once sounded like Britain. But then, the ITV mergers happened

The Granada Studios, Quay Street, Manchester. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, several ITV franchises celebrated half a century of continuous operation. There was a Yorkshire Television themed cake, and a flag bearing the company’s logo was flown over ITV’s Yorkshire base for a time. It was all very jolly – but while a few people beyond Britain’s small community of television historians and old telly nerds engaged with the idea, any excitement was brief.

The main reason for is not, as you might assume, that, in the era of streaming and so forth, ITV is no longer a dominant presence in many people’s cultural lives: even the quickest of glances at the relevant figures would tell you otherwise. No, it’s because the mere existence of ITV’s franchises is now passing out of common memory. They are the trademarks, literally rather than figuratively, of a version of ITV that today exists only nominally.

For most of its history, ITV operated on a federal model. ITV wasn’t a company, it was a concept: ‘Independent Television’, that is, television which was not the BBC.

It was also a network, rather than a channel – a network of multiple regional channels, each of which served a specific area of the UK. Each had their own name and onscreen identity; and each made programmes within their own region. They were ITV – but they were also Yorkshire, Granada, Grampian, Thames, and so on.

So when I was a child growing up the in Midlands in the ‘80s, no one at school ever said “ITV”: they said “Central”, because that’s what the channel called itself on air, or “Channel Three” because that’s where it was on the dial. To visit friends who lived in other regions was to go abroad – to visit strange lands where the third channel was called Anglia, and its logo was a bafflingly long film sequence of a model knight rotating on a record turntable, where all the newsreaders were different and where they didn’t show old horror films on Friday nights.

The ITV regions as of 1982, plus Ireland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there were programmes that were shown across the whole network. Any station, no matter in what part of the country, would be foolish not to transmit Coronation Street during the period where it could persuade nearly half the population to tune in. But even The Street wasn’t networked from the beginning: it started in six of the then eight ITV regions, and rolled out to the other two after a few months when it became clear the series was here to stay.

This was a common occurrence: The Avengers, one of the few ITV series to genuinely break America, began in an even more limited number of regions in the same year, with other areas scrambling to catch up when the programme became a hit.

The idea behind ITV’s structure was that the regions would compete with each other to put programmes on the network, opting in and out of others’ productions as worked best for them. ITV was, after all, an invention of a 1950s Conservative government that was developing a taste for the idea of ‘healthy competition’ even as it accepted the moral and practical case for a mixed economy. The system worked well for decades: in 1971, for example, the success of London Weekend Television’s Upstairs, Downstairs, creatively and commercially, and domestically and internationally, prompted other regions to invest in high end period dramas so as to not look like a poor relation.


Even away from prestige productions there was, inexplicable as it now seems, a genuine sense of local pride when a hit programme came from your region. That Bullseye was made on Broad Street in Birmingham was something that people knew. That 17.6m people watched the 1984 Xmas special, making it one of the ten most watched programmes of the year, made Bully a sort of local hero. In more concrete terms, Bullseye and other Birmingham based programmes provided jobs, and kept that part of the country visible from all others. This was true of all areas, and from all areas.

ITV franchises would often make programmes that were distinctive to, or set in, their region. Another of Central’s late eighties hits was Boon. It might have starred the cockney-sounding Michael Elphick, but it was filmed and set in Birmingham, just as Central’s predecessor ATV’s Public Eye had been at the end of the sixties. In Tales of the Unexpected, one of the poorest and smallest ITV regions, the aforementioned Anglia, made a bona fide international hit, largely filmed in transmission area, too. HTV produced a string of children’s series set in its south west catchment area, including some, such as The Georgian House, that examined the way the area had profited from the slave trade.

There was another element of ‘competition’ in the structure of ITV as originally conceived: the franchises were not for life. Every few years, a franchise round would come along, forcing the incumbent stations to bid to continue its own existence against other local offerings.

The process was no simple auction. Ministers were empowered to reject higher financial bids if they felt a lower bid offered other things that mattered: local employment or investment, programming plans that reflected the identity of the region they were bidding to serve, or simply higher quality programmes.

Yorkshire Television itself owes its existence to just such a franchise round: the one that followed a 1967 decision by regulator IBA that Granada, until then the holder of a pan-northern England licence, was insufficiently local to Yorkshire. For a decade, commissioning and production had been concentrated in Manchester, with little representation of, or benefit for, the other side of the Pennines. IBA’s decision was intended to correct this.

Yorkshire existed in practical terms for almost exactly 40 years. Its achievements included Rising Damp, the only truly great sitcom ever made for ITV.

But in 1997 it was, ironically, bought out by Granada, the company who had had to move aside in order for it to be created. What had changed? The law.

In 1990, another Conservative government, one even keener on competition and rather less convinced of the moral and practical case for a mixed economy, had changed the rules concerning ITV regions. There was still a ‘quality threshold’ of a sort – but there was less discretion for those awarding the franchises. Crucially, the rules had been liberalised, and the various ITV franchises that existed as of 1992 started buying out, merging with and swallowing one another until, in 2004, the last two merged to form ITV plc: a single company and a single channel.

The Yorkshire Television birthday cake. Image: ITV.

Yorkshire Television – or rather ITV Yorkshire as it was renamed in 2006 – is listed at Companies House as a dormant company, although it is still the nominal holder of the ITV licence for much of Northern England. Its distinctive onscreen identity, including the logo, visible on the cake above, disappeared early this century, replaced by generic ITV branding, sometimes with the word Yorkshire hidden underneath it, but often without it. Having once been created because Manchester was too far away, Yorkshire TV is now largely indistinguishable from that offered in London. (It is more by accident of history than anything else that ITV retains any non-London focus at all; one of the last two regions standing was Granada.)

The onscreen identities of the all the other franchises disappeared at roughly the same time. What remained of local production and commissioning followed. Regional variations now only really exist for news and advertising. TV is proud that is can offer advertisers a variety of levels of engagement, from micro regional to national: it just doesn’t bother doing so with programming or workforce any more.

Except for viewers in Scotland. Curiously, STV is an ITV franchise which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, doesn’t suffer from the restrictions/opportunities imposed by upon its English brethren in 1990. It also – like UTV in Northern Ireland, another complex, special case – Its own onscreen identity. Nationalism, as it so often does, is trumping regionalism – although it was not all that long ago that Scotland had multiple ITV regions, in recognising its own lack homogeneity and distinct regions, while respecting its status as a country.


As is often observed by anyone who has thought about it for more than four seconds, the UK is an almost hilariously over-centralised country, with its political, financial, administrative, artistic and political centres all in the same place. Regionalised television helped form a bulwark against the consequences of that centralisation. Regional commissioning and production guaranteed that the UK of ITV looked and sounded like the whole of the UK. The regions could talk about themselves, to themselves and others, via the medium of national television.

The idea of a federal UK crops up with increasing frequency these days; it is almost inconceivable that considerable constitutional tinkering will not be required after the good ship UK hits the iceberg that is Brexit, and that’s assuming that Northern Ireland and Scotland remain within that country at all. If the UK is to become a federation, and many think it will have to, then why shouldn’t its most popular and influential medium?

A new Broadcasting Act is needed. One that breaks up ITV plc and offers its constituent licences out to tender again; one that offers them only on the guarantee that certain conditions, to do with regional employment and production, regional commissioning and investment, are met.

Our current national conversation is undeniably toxic. Maybe increasing the variety of accents in that conversation will help.

Thanks to Dr David Rolinson at the University of Stirling and britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk.