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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The Road to Nowhere

by | July 31st, 2013 | 06:14 am
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Gangwon

Bruce Klinger of the Heritage Foundation recently passed along the photo above which appeared in the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh (talk about strange bedfellows).  As the paper observes, “In 2007, railroads on the west and east coasts of South Korea were linked with lines in North Korea, but never entered full operation. Before the Korean War, a railway ran along the coast from Gangneung, but was pulled up after the war. There were plans to rebuild the line, but they never got past the showcase stage. July 27 is the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended the combat phase of the Korean War, and the tracks are rusty and unused.”

Gangwon province was split by the division of the peninsula and the South Korean Gangwon province has evinced a particular interest in North-South integration as a spur to local economic development. The October 2007 summit, in which North and South Korea agreed to a variety of tourism ventures and KIC-like industrial enclaves, gave Gangwon hopes that it might benefit if such a zone were developed at Wonsan. But these hopes have not been realized.

Similarly, President Park’s vision of a more economically integrated Northeast Asia through a “Eurasian” “Silk Road” initiative that would link the transportation grid in the region with Europe would seem to give hope that the Donghae Bukbu railway (Northeast Coast Line) in Gangwon Province could be re-opened and put to use.  Admittedly, it might not stimulate economic activity on the scale that the provincial government might have hoped, but at least it would be something.

Yet even this modest goal appears to be stymied by North Korean intransience.  As the current maneuvering over a possible re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex makes clear, having scuttled activities and created real damage for the South Korean firms operating there (and forcing the South Korean government to incur costs via the insurance and subsidies it offered to some of these firms), its not enough to says “do-over.”  Indeed, it is hard to think up pre-commitment devices that would make any North Korean commitment in this context credible (other than possibly picking up the wages of the North Korean workers for some significant period of time).  Talk is cheap.  Show me the money.  Otherwise it’s Groundhog Day.  That might be good enough for the South Korean political system, but it is unlikely to persuade commercial investors and it likely to encourage a further intensification of South Korean government subsidy of firms operating in the zone.

In the meantime, sadly, the Northeast Coast line remains the proverbial road to nowhere.