South and North Korean officials unveil a signboard for Seoul and Pyongyang during a groundbreaking ceremony for reconnecting and repairing the railways across the divided Korean peninsula at Panmun Station in North Korea's border city of Kaesong on December 26, 2018. Photo: AFP/Korea Pool
South and North Korean officials unveil a signboard for Seoul and Pyongyang during a groundbreaking ceremony for reconnecting and repairing the railways across the divided Korean peninsula at Panmun Station in North Korea's border city of Kaesong on December 26, 2018. Photo: AFP/Korea Pool

In a modest event on Wednesday, North and South Korea held a groundbreaking ceremony for the linkage of their railway lines across the Demilitarized Zone.

However, it was not the first time optimism about inter-Korean transport links had been on display. The tracks were, in fact, reconnected in 2005, amid the “Sunshine Policy’ of inter-Korean engagement.

That policy stalled between 2008 and 2017, amid tensions that only eased this year, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s global charm offensive was launched on January 1.

Now, as the year ends, the North Korea-US denuclearization process has stalled. Given the centrality of that issue, clouds also hang over the future of the inter-Korean reconciliation process.

Far-flung potential …

The ceremony was held at Panmun Station near the North Korean town of Kaesong, just north of the DMZ.

Due to its location on the peninsula’s west coast transport corridor between Pyongyang and Seoul, Kaesong was the site of a joint industrial park that married South Korean capital with North Korean labor. That park, which operated until 2016, was closed due to inter-Korean tensions in 2016, but now hosts an inter-Korean liaison office occupied by representatives of both governments.

High-ranking officials from both Koreas attended the groundbreaking ceremony. From the South, they included Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon and parliamentarians. From the North, Ri Son Gwon, Cho’s counterpart, and Vice Railway Minister Kim Yun Hyok attended..

Representatives from China, Mongolia and Russia were also present, according to reports by Yonhap news agency.

If South Korean trains are permitted to run through North Korea, the South Korean rail net could be connected to the trans-Siberian, Chinese and Mongolian line with the potential of massively upgrading cargo and passenger traffic across continental Northeast Asia.

It would also mean South Korea – cut off from the Asia landmass by North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953 – would cease to be a geopolitical “island” and could enjoy direct rail connections to China, Russia and beyond.

But, perhaps in recognition of the fact that this dream is far from realization, Wednesday’s ceremony, though brimming with goodwill – TV footage showed much handshaking and smiling – was lacking in pomp and circumstance.

Speeches were delivered, a signboard was unveiled and participants signed a railway sleeper.

… unfulfilled far-flung potential

Amid a harsh international sanctions regime that severely limits any transactions – particularly financial transactions – with North Korea, no timeline is in place for South Korean trains to start entering and traversing its neighbor.

“It is difficult to predict the timing of [operations] at the moment, as full-scale implementation of the project, including its construction, can only be carried out when conditions, such as progress toward denuclearization, are set,” a Unification Ministry spokeperson told Asia Times by email.

On the upside, the Unification Ministry noted: “Through the ‘connection and modernization,’ the inter-Korean railways will create an atmosphere for practical come and go of people and goods.”

In fact, given the sanctions regime and despite Wednesday’s “connection,” it is unclear whether South Korea can even invest in the modernization of the North Korean network.

Wednesday’s ceremony was preceded by two surveys of North Korean railway conditions, undertaken in the North by South Korean officials on South Korean trains. Just for the South Korean surveyors to enter the North with their own supplies and equipment, Seoul first had to gain permission from the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee, which they did on November 23, the ministry noted.

Whether the UNSC Sanctions Committee would grant approval for South to dispatch the huge amounts of equipment necessary for North Korea to upgrade its dilapidated rail infrastructure  is open to question.

One pundit, though cynical about Wednesday’s ceremony, appreciated the reason for it.

“This is clearly more about inter-Korean dialogue than a real starting point for economic engagement,” said Go Myong-hyun, who watches North Korea from the Asan Institute in Seoul. “I think the Moon Jae-in administration understands that unless they do this kind of thing of a symbolic nature, they can lose the momentum of inter-Korean dialogue.”

It is particularly important for the Moon administration to demonstrate policy success in the inter-Korean space, given that Moon’s approval ratings are on a sliding trend amid a slowing economy and lack of progress on job creation.

With North Korea-US denuclearization talks stalled since November, there are still some hopes surrounding an inter-Korean summit in Seoul, and for a Kim Jong Un-Donald Trump summit in January or February.

However, no dates have been set for either summit and no location has been decided upon for the latter summit. Unless there is a breakthrough in North Korea-US relations, South Korean businesses, whether state-owned or private, are unlikely to risk US ire and transact with the North.

“The South Korean government is abiding by sanctions measures, so I don’t think they will do anything concrete, economically, anytime soon, unless the US government says ‘okay’,” said Go. “Until that signal comes out of Washington, I don’t think the South Korean government will engage – though we know how much they want to.

“The fact that they are not doing it shows how afraid they are of secondary sanctions.”

Secondary sanctions would be US Treasury measures which could shut affected companies out of the US – and therefore the global financial system.

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