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Not quite full steam ahead for cross-border rail

June 29,2018
After the two Koreas agreed on Tuesday to connect their railroads and work together on modernizing the North’s infrastructure, one question looms: Is the project even possible?

If South Korea were to provide North Korea with vehicles, machinery and other equipment for track construction, it would violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 2397, which prohibits the export of industrial equipment to the North. The sanctions, passed unanimously on Dec. 22, 2017, came after the North tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov. 29 of last year.

During the meeting between officials from the two Koreas on Tuesday, both sides agreed to boost cooperation in modernizing North Korea’s rails, stating the end goal was “balanced development of the national economy and co-prosperity.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has espoused a grand vision of creating a single market with the two Koreas to lay the foundation for unification, job creation and economic growth in both countries.

His bigger dream is to connect inter-Korean railroads with the Trans-Siberian network in Russia and ultimately have trains run across the Eurasian continent. “From Busan to Berlin” has been the rallying cry.

South Korean officials who attended the meeting on Tuesday said the government would “closely consult with the international community” to make sure it did not violate any sanctions, but experts say it won’t be easy without getting an exemption from the UN.

“It’s impossible to modernize North Korea’s rail infrastructure with current sanctions,” said Lim Soo-ho, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank in Seoul.

However, Jeong Hyung-gon, a senior research fellow at the Sejong-based Korea Institute International Economic Policy, believes South Korea might have a good chance at receiving an exemption because the industrial exports would be put to public, not commercial, use.

The United States, one of the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, made clear that it would not ease sanctions until the North denuclearizes.

Aside from the sanctions, South Korea is prone to struggle with drastic differences in both countries’ infrastructure.

The two Koreas use different electricity and telecommunication systems, and tracks outside of Pyongyang are older than those in the North Korean capital.

No one knows this better than the country’s leader. On April 27, when Kim Jong-un traveled to the border to meet with Moon for their first summit, he said he would be “embarrassed” to have Moon visit his country due to its “defective” transportation system compared to the South.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]