For the first time in a decade, a South Korean train crossed the border into North Korea. It was a prelude to the two Koreas reconnecting their railways, after being separated for more than half a century. South Korea’s desire to engage and unify with its reclusive northern neighbor appears to be clashing with Washington’s goal of eliminating nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. And that is a good thing for the Korean peninsula.

South and North Korean government officials connect northern and southern railroad tracks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the connection and modernization of South-North railways at the North Korean border town Panmun station in Kaesong, North Korea. (Image: Korea/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

What is the new positive between the two Koreas?

A South Korean train rolled across the heavily militarized frontier into North Korea for the first time in a decade on Nov.30, as Seoul pushed ahead with a plan to reunite the two railway networks despite heavy U.N. sanctions.

  • The train pulled six cars carrying dozens of South Korean officials and experts, who are now undertaking an 18-day, 750-mile survey of railway tracks in the North. The journey required special permission from the United Nations to carry equipment and fuel into the North despite the sanctions regime.
  • Seoul plans to hold a ground-breaking ceremony before the end of the year on a plan to establish road and rail links between the two Koreas, first agreed upon by the countries’ two leaders at a summit in April. But the project can’t go beyond symbolic gestures to become reality unless sanctions are lifted.
  • Nevertheless, with talks between the United States and North Korea stalling, the government in Seoul is keen to show progress in its own peace process with Pyongyang. “The inter-Korean railway connection project is intended to overcome division and open a new future of the Korean Peninsula,”Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said at a ceremony at Dorasan Station near the border. “Through the one connected railway, the South and the North will prosper together and the ground for peace on the Korean Peninsula will be consolidated,” he said. “The train crossing the Korean Peninsula will carry peace and prosperity to northeast Asia and the world.”
  • Cho also promised to maintain close consultation “with related nations” — in other words, the United States — so that the project proceeds with international support. After whistling twice, the South Korean train slowly travelled toward North Korea’s Panmun Station, near the town of Kaesong, where the cars would be reconnected to a North Korean engine.

Hinting at what shape inspectors might find the north’s railways, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un joked at an April summit that it would be an embarrassment if South Korean President Moon Jae-in were to travel by train to his country, suggesting the ride would not be smooth or comfortable. Now Kim is making sure Moon’s ride will be smooth.


Why does this inter-Korean railway project matter?

Although the international media duly covered that this was happening, the true significance of this event is not being adequately appreciated.

  • In its scale and ambition, the Inter-Korean Railway Project is quite unlike any other previous project involving North Korea, and the beginning moment of this project may well be one for the history books. The economics of the project, estimated to cost approximately USD$35 billion, is unprecedented: if completed, the project will be the largest foreign investment into North Korea by a significant margin.
  • When the joint survey was announced, Seoul’s stock market soared, with some rail-related companies’ shares jumping by 20 percent overnight. Currently the North Korean rails are in such poor shape that trains can only average 50 kilometers an hour, and the rails would break under heavy loads.
  • The Inter-Korean Railway Project will modernize six rail lines traversing North Korea, and add a high-speed line from Seoul through Pyongyang and ultimately to Sinuiju, where the rail would cross the Chinese border and link up to Dandong, China. Retrofitting the rails would allow speeds of 100 kilometers an hour in the regular lines and enable heavier loads. The renovated rails would connect to Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway and China’s One Belt One Road initiative, allowing the overland travel of South Korea’s people and goods all the way across the Eurasian continent.

However, what the Inter-Korean Railway Project signals as to the intent of North Korea and the United States may be even more significant than its economics.

  • For North Korea, the fact that the Inter-Korean Railway Project is moving forward is a major departure from its modus operandi. Since the very beginning, the project was marked by an unusual degree of openness on the part of North Korea. With the joint survey, North Korea would be displaying unprecedented openness by disclosing the state of their key infrastructure to South Korea.
  • In fact, the state of its rails would not be the only thing that North Korea would be revealing to South Korea through this joint survey. The on-the-ground military intelligence to be gathered by the South Korean survey team would be invaluable, and North Korea, it seems, is letting it happen.

When can this ruffle American feathers?

With South Korea moving more toward cooperation with North Korea, there have been constant refrains on how South Korea and the United States are moving at different speeds, creating a rift in the alliance. There are mounting concerns in the US establishment that peace efforts may overshadow the denuclearization of North Korea.

  • “We have made clear to the Republic of Korea that we do want to make sure that peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea aren’t lagging behind the increase in the amount of inter-relationship between the two Koreas,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in November.
  • From joint railway projects to sporting exchanges, South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s government is looking to spend hundreds of millions on economic and cultural initiatives with Pyongyang to promote integration and reunification. So far, the two countries have agreed to reinstate a joint military commission, develop mechanisms for family reunions and even pursue a joint bid to co-host the 2032 Olympics.

In Washington, many are now comparing the rapid pace of warming inter-Korea relations with the slow progress of denuclearization.

  • North Korea claimed it has closed a major nuclear test site and has promised to dismantle more facilities as part of an agreement between its ruler Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump. But last month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank, said it had identified 13 of an estimated 20 undeclared missile bases inside the isolated state, triggering concerns about Pyongyang delivering on its promise.
  • “Rapid inter-Korean rapprochement is badly out of sync with the stalemate on the nuclear track,” said Daniel Russel, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and current vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, during an October speech.
  • Moon, who leads the leftist Democratic Party, has long advocated a policy of engagement with Pyongyang even as he comes under criticism for flattering Kim. “Moon and his party have, so far, put more focus on the issue of unification or peace rather than denuclearization, to the extent of Moon being publicly seen as Kim Jong-un’s top spokesman,” said Hyung-A Kim, associate professor of Korean politics at the Australian National University.

While that won’t greatly affect Washington’s efforts to pressure North Korea, U.S.-South Korea relations could grow tenser in the future.

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Where does the biggest inter-Korean peace project focus on?

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, responsible for inter-Korean affairs, has seen its standing wax and wane along with relations between the still officially warring neighbors.

  • The ministry returned to prominence this year after three summits between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended with pledges to defuse military tensions, restart economic cooperation and formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. But those efforts have placed the ministry in a bind, with Washington wary of rapid progress between the two Koreas that may undermine international sanctions and efforts to dismantle the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
  • The South’s full-fledged Unification Ministry is the only one of its kind in the world, with its northern counterpart being the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country. Amid fears Pyongyang might forcibly reunify the peninsula, former military dictator Park Chung-hee created the ministry’s 45-strong precursor in 1969, at the height of the Cold War, as a public propaganda body against the North.
  • As relations improved in the early 1970s, the unification agency’s role evolved to include cross-border dialogue and exchanges. The ministry expanded its duties in the 1990s, studying human rights abuses in North Korea and helping resettle defectors who fled amid a devastating famine in the mid-1990s.
  • The ministry’s heyday came under liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung, who upgraded its status to full-fledged ministry in 1998, and his successor Roh Moo-hyun. It played a pivotal role when Kim and Roh met with North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong Il, for summits in 2000 and 2007 respectively, in Pyongyang. Staffing grew to 550 by 2007.
  • But a series of incidents and attacks and the North’s pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles, followed by international sanctions and the halt of joint economic projects, saw the ministry’s influence wane. In 2008, newly elected conservative president Lee Myung-bak cut staff by 15 percent. In 2016, his conservative successor Park Geun-hye, shut down the Kaesong joint industrial park in the North, the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement.
  • Moon, a former chief of staff to Roh and who prepared him for the 2007 inter-Korean summit, took office in May 2017 vowing to restore dialogue. Moon wants to build an inter-Korean economic community, under a multibillion-dollar “New Korean Peninsula Economic Map”. It envisions joint industrial zones and transportation links, including by reopening the Kaesong factory park and resuming tours to the North’s Mount Kumkang resort.

Moon’s reconciliation policy has given a renewed sense of purpose to the 560-strong ministry, but at the same time poses a dilemma over how to proceed with inter-Korean initiatives while advancing nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

Who holds the key to future peace on the peninsula?

President Donald Trump plans to hold a second meeting early next year with Kim Jong Un, even though North Korea has failed to follow through with promises to start dismantling its nuclear weapons program, John Bolton, the national security adviser, said this week.

  • “They have not lived up to the commitments so far,” Bolton said. “That’s why I think the president thinks another summit is likely to be productive.” Bolton was referring to a pledge that the North Korean leader made in June at his first face-to-face meeting with Trump in Singapore. At the time, Kim said North Korea would work toward “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
  • But in the nearly six months since the Singapore summit meeting, which Trump heralded with a tweet declaring North Korea “no longer a Nuclear Threat,” Pyongyang has continued its production of nuclear fuel and weapons, and steadily improved its missile capabilities. Trump often notes that there have been no missile or nuclear tests in more than a year to argue that Kim is willing to make good on his promises. But Bolton and others on the president’s staff remain highly skeptical.
  • Senior U.S. officials followed up on the Singapore meeting by asking the North to take a first step by turning over a complete list of its weapons, fuel-production facilities and missile sites. But the North has refused, telling the United States that an inventory of its nuclear assets would give Washington a “target list” if it sought to strike the country.

Instead, North Korean officials have insisted that the United States first sign onto a formal declaration to end the Korean War, which they contend Trump agreed to in Singapore, as well as ease harsh economic sanctions.

  • Kim may be under little pressure to act. His historic Singapore meeting with Trump was a propaganda boon for the North Korean leader, showing that he could hold a direct dialogue with the United States. A second summit would again appease Kim while sacrificing an important point of leverage that the United States has with North Korea, according to some analysts.
  • “This move defies any negotiating logic,” said Evan S. Medeiros, senior Asia policy director in the National Security Council during the Obama administration. He said that “meeting Kim again only validates Kim’s strategy of using Trump to play for time and sanctions relief, and keep North Korea on the pathway to becoming a de facto nuclear weapon state.” Until this year, the United States had sought to isolate North Korea diplomatically and economically; now it is relying solely on economic isolation through sanctions.

Kim and Trump missed out on the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, but that is no reason to stop trying for the next year. Moon may just get a special mention. The show belongs to Kim and Trump, in that order.

How strong are the chances of a reunion?

Hopes were high when it was announced in September that Kim would visit Seoul this month – representing the first time that a North Korean leader set foot in the South’s capital since the division of the Korean Peninsula. But officially that date has been pushed back to next year – though some Korean lawmakers are privately holding out hope that it will still happen this year.

  • That makes this a tricky time for South Korea. The Speaker of South Korea’s parliament gave a stark assessment of the current situation as a once in 1000 years opportunity for both Koreas to agree to peace. His assessment was a reference to the unique chemistry between the three key players in the current negotiations toward a de-nuclearised North Korea – Trump, Kim and President Moon Jae-in, who has driven much of the current process.
  • But there is also a growing awareness that the ground is slowly shifting in South Korea, where there is a building mood against unification, long seen as the natural corollary to lasting peace. To older Koreans, who include today’s generation of leaders, the 70 year separation of the two Koreas – imposed by allied forces after World War II – is a national tragedy, cleaving a line through families, the Korean culture and national identity.
  • But younger Koreans, who have long lived under the shadow of North Korea’s nuclear threat, only see an impoverished and hostile neighbour, and a people with which they share little in common. It is not just younger Koreans – a 2017 survey by the Korea Institute for National Unification shows public support for reunification has steadily declined, with 57.8 per cent seeing it as necessity, down from 69.3 per cent in 2014.
  • But among those in their 20s just 38.9 per cent think unification is necessary. When it was agreed the two Koreas would march under the one flag at the Winter Olympics it triggered a backlash in South Korea after being viewed as an exercise in political propaganda. Young Koreans were particularly aggrieved over the two countries fielding a joint hockey team as it was seen as North Koreans usurping the place of its countries own athletes.
  • But the economic cost of unification is another factor. The estimated $5 trillion cost will be largely borne by South Korea, which is currently experiencing an economic downturn, including rising unemployment. Unification – just not now seems to be the current mood. Officials hold to the line, however, that South Koreans still want unification – even if there is no agreement on the pace of change.

As one high ranking official notes: Living under the constant shadow of a nuclear armed North Korea is not an option either. Moon Jae-in has a shot at history. He is the only man really wanting unification and not many will be surprised if he even lets Kim rule unified Korea. Of course, that is a possibility most of the rest of the world would want to avoid.