October 25th, 2012
01:17 PM GMT
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For decades there have been dreams of a railway network spanning from Asia to Europe, linking cities as diverse as Kuala Lumpur and Kabul in what is known as the "Iron Silk Road".

But the project is stalled and is facing major obstacles. One in particular is in South Korea. A map of the proposed railway network included the Korean peninsula, but restoring the North – South Korean rail network remains difficult.

It was all smiles and handshakes at the turn of the millennium. North and South Korea had big plans to reconnect the peninsula by rail.

Freight trains crossed through barbed-wire gates in the DMZ or demilitarised zone – for the first time in almost 50 years.

By June 2003, the Gyeongui line which connects Seoul to Pyongyang was completed, passing straight through the most heavily fortified border in the world.

At the time, Cho Myung-kyun from the South Korean Unification Ministry said: “This is an important event of clearing the minefields and barb-wired fences and reconnecting the pulse of our people.”

The line had not been used since the early 1950s and the Korean War. The railway bridge connecting the two Koreas was destroyed in an aerial bombing.

In 2007, two passenger trains crossed the border for the first time in more than half a century - one from the South and one from the North.

One politician spoke of reconnecting the severed bloodline of the Korean people.

One year later relations soured and the Gyeongui line stopped dead at the DMZ.... the trans-Korean railway is still not a reality.

Only tourists and the mlitary ride the train this near to the border now, both wanting to get as close to North Korea as they can.

If this line was fully functioning and open, it would not only connect Seoul to Pyongyang but further up the track it would connect Seoul to China and through its railway systems to the rest of the world.

Even if relations improve, North Korea's decrepit railway lines would need billions of dollars in investment.

Prof. Andrei Lankov of the Kookmin University told CNN’s Paula Hancocks they have not been seriously repaired or modernised since the 1950s or maybe even 1930s in some cases.

“The average speed is something like 40 or 50 kms an hour so you have to basically build it completely new and it's expensive.”

Plans for the so-called Iron Silk Road have been in place for years - an inevitable modernisation of the silk road that has existed for well over 2000 years.

Trillions of dollars are being invested around the world on high-speed railways.

Parag Khanna of the New America Foundation said: ”Europe has been very much in the lead in this, but now China has been boosting its investment in high speed railways both within China and now looking across to Central Asia, Russia and South East Asia.

“Eventually there will in fact be a high speed network connecting from Europe all the way to China.”

But South Korea remains cut-off.  Exports have to be shipped by sea which is slow and costly.

Russian gas is currently imported by tanker – talks of a gas pipeline being laid through North Korea to pump directly from Russia to South Korea have been ongoing for years.

Pyongyang would make hundreds of millions of dollars out of the deal.

Prof Lankov said: ”There is no efforts on the behalf of the North Korean government. They just let foreigners put something in their soil and they are being paid for this agreement. It's really a dream, it's a very good deal, they do nothing and they are paid, isn't it wonderful.”

The risk lies firmly with Russia's state gas giant Gazprom who would pay for the pipeline to be built... and with Seoul who fear North Korea could hold its economy to ransom by threatening to disrupt the supply.

So for now, as the pipeline and the trans-Korean railway prove elusive, South Korea effectively remains an island.

Filed under: Along the silk roadBusiness

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Marco Hsiao

    [Iron Silk Road is constructing grandly]

    More than 2500 years only China could produce silk cloth, more than 1500 years only China could export silk cloth. "Silk Road" is the trade road for silk cloth export from China.

    Now traffic and trade between Mainland China and Southeast Asia are upgrading fast (soon high speed rail between Mainland China and Singapore will be completed). Traffic and trade between Mainland China and Russia are upgrading, too. Traffic between Mainland China and ROC Taiwan are increasingly hugely on sea lines and airlines. Traffic and trade between India and Mainland China could be improved largely in the future.

    Except Korea Peninsula (Korea is just a small part on Asia or Silk Road); Asia linking is improving significantly. Now big infrastructures are constructing for many Asian countries, and in the future more trade would be prompted. Possibly East Asia is becoming new world center.

    October 26, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
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Along the Silk Road

“Along the Silk Road” explores the burgeoning trade and investment links from the Middle East to Asia – Beijing, Mumbai, Istanbul, Kabul, Moscow, Hong Kong, Jakarta and Dubai.

The series surveys the export-driven economies, countries with vast capitals of reserve and natural resources, that economic forecasters pinpoint as ringleaders of growth for the next quarter of a century.

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