January 08, 2019

Roads and Railways: Paths to Unity and Unification?

By Raymond Ha

DMZ Train 
Imjingang Station 
May 21, 2014 
From Seoul Station to Dorasan Station

On December 26, 2018, the two Koreas held a groundbreaking ceremony for the inter-Korean railway project at Panmun Station in Kaesong, North Korea.[1] There must first be sufficient progress on denuclearization for there to be meaningful progress on building and operating the inter-Korean railway, but the UN Security Council granted an exemption from UN sanctions for the ceremony itself. In addition to exploring a joint railway project, North and South Korea have also already conducted a preliminary joint on-site assessment of North Korea’s road infrastructure.[2]

Estimates of the total cost of the road and railway projects vary widely. However, if these roads and railways are connected and the political situation stabilizes such that it becomes possible to safely and rapidly transport goods across these networks, the economic benefits will be substantial. Completing the West Sea corridor that links Kaesong, Pyongyang, and Sinuiju will connect South Korea not only to China’s three northeastern provinces, but also to Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” project. The latter will open a path across the Eurasian continent and to Europe. The East Sea corridor, which connects Wonsan, Hamhung, Kimchaek, and the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone, has the potential to create lasting synergy effects by linking South Korea to Moscow’s plans to develop the Russian Far East. In particular, available reports indicate that the Rajin-Khasan project, which was launched in 2007 but halted in 2016 due to rising tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program, is likely to be resumed in the near future.[3]

In addition to potential violations of applicable UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, three issues must be considered as South Korea and other regional actors formulate visions for Northeast Asia’s economic future.

The first is national security. While roads and railways serve a clear economic function, once built they can also be used to transport troops, supplies, and munitions or to conduct mass evacuations of civilians. It is no coincidence that the ROK Army’s Capital Defense Command has military police checkpoints at every major bridge that crosses the Han River in Seoul. Moreover, the Schlieffen Plan, the German military’s war plan for World War I, was based on the assessment that Russia, which began to industrialize much later than other European powers, had an inefficient rail infrastructure. The German General Staff assessed that it could rapidly push through Belgium, defeat France, and re-deploy its troops to the Eastern Front before Russia could adequately mobilize its forces.

In addition, President Eisenhower, who successfully directed Operation Overlord during World War II as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, declared in his State of the Union address in January 1955 that “a modern, efficient highway system is essential to meet the needs of our growing population, our expanding economy, and our national security” [emphasis added].[4]

Congress subsequently passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which became the foundation of the U.S. Interstate Highway System.

Completing the inter-Korean road and railway network will affect national security considerations on the Korean peninsula. National security policies must change accordingly as the political situation develops. However, one must refrain from only relying on the other party’s rhetoric and apparent good intentions in devising national security policy. Concerns have already been raised about whether last year’s inter-Korean military agreements adequately accounted for key national security considerations. It is vital that South Korea and the United States comprehensively assess the national security impact of completing the inter-Korean road and railway network, if such discussions have not taken place already.

The second relates to societal control inside North Korea. Once a modern transportation infrastructure is built in North Korea, the regime can use this infrastructure to respond to and suppress revolts and episodes of civil unrest with greater speed. There appear to be no indications that the Korean Workers’ Party plans to relax its political, ideological, and social control over the North Korean population. Accordingly, the North Korean regime can be expected to exercise tight control over key transportation corridors.

Following Kim Jong-un’s latest New Year’s Address, there have already been renewed discussions about the re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC). One could imagine, for instance, a situation in the not-too-distant future when North Korean workers at the KIC stage a mass strike over a dispute about wage payments. Given the lack of freedom of association or freedom of the press, it is not at all unlikely that the North Korean regime will respond with force. In doing so, the regime may use the roads and railways that were built with South Korean and other external investment.

The last issue is the question of workers’ rights and safety during the construction of the roads and railways. The tragic death of Kim Yong-Gyun, a 24-year-old worker, at a thermal power plant in Taean, South Chungcheong province on December 10, 2018 sparked discussions in South Korea about workers’ safety. This directly contributed to the National Assembly’s passage of a revised Occupational Safety and Health Act on December 27.

On December 17, The Washington Post cited human rights experts and North Korean escapees in an article that raised concerns about the potential use of forced labor in future construction projects in North Korea.[5] To date, there do not appear to have been discussions about which countries will provide the labor force to build roads and railways in North Korea. Since there has not yet been substantial progress on denuclearization, some may argue that it is too soon to discuss such detailed issues of implementation.

However, Human Rights Watch has voiced concerns since 2006 that working conditions at the KIC failed to meet international labor standards.[6]Similar concerns were raised once again on April 22, 2015.[7]International discussions of North Korea’s human rights situation typically focus on issues such as political prison camps and the forcible repatriation of refugees from China, but workers’ rights must also be improved if North Korea is to “become a normal and responsible member of the international community.”[8]

Kim Jeong-Ryeol, South Korea’s Second Vice Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, publicly stated on December 6, 2018 that the Ministry is assessing the possibility of receiving investment from international institutions to develop North Korea’s railways.[9]If multilateral investment helps fund the construction of roads and railways, it is possible that relevant parties may call for the observance of international labor standards in the construction process. However, if North Korea provides the labor force, it is not at all unlikely that the regime will mobilize prisoners or political prisoners, since they can be easily controlled in the event of an accident. North Korea has also been known to mobilize military labor for construction projects. Although North Korea is not a member state of the International Labour Organization (ILO), railroad construction in peacetime arguably does not constitute an exception under Article 2 of ILO Convention No. 29, which exempts “work of a purely military character” from the definition of forced or compulsory labour.[10]

In any policy process, there are complex considerations that are unknown to the public. Extensive, tangible change rarely occurs quickly even when policies are pursued with full force. Nevertheless, given the current South Korean president’s career as a lawyer who defended workers’ rights in the 1980s alongside Roh Moo-Hyun, another former president,[11] one can reasonably expect the Moon administration to consider such issues in its inter-Korean policy. If there are casualties during the construction process, and if the North Korean authorities attempt to cover up such an accident, there should be no one who justifies it “as a tragic but necessary price to pay for peace and prosperity among the Korean people.”

It is well known that Chinese workers endured horrific working conditions as they built the transcontinental railroad in the United States in the mid-19th century. At the very least, it would be remiss of South Korea and the international community to ignore workers’ rights at the beginning of a new era of peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula in the 21st century. Heightened attention towards workers’ safety in South Korea only increases the importance of appropriately addressing this issue.

The phrase “the steel horse wants to run” has become an enduring symbol of division on the Korean peninsula.[12]South Korea’s official media outlets hailed the groundbreaking ceremony of December 26 as a symbolic moment that “re-connected the severed artery of the Korean peninsula.”[13]

Beginning with Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Address on January 1, last year saw a series of unprecedented developments, including the Singapore Summit of June 12, that no one could have anticipated in 2017. Just as the sight of Moon Jae-In and Kim Jong-un crossing the Military Demarcation Line hand in hand and the scene of the “footbridge dialogue” left a deep impression across the world, the groundbreaking ceremony of December 26 will also leave its mark as a historic moment on the path to unification.

Roads and railways have a clear direction and destination. As the Republic of Korea paints its vision of the future of the Korean peninsula, and as the international community searches for its role in this historic transformation, all parties should walk forward together with “cool heads but warm hearts.” The three issues raised above may, in retrospect, reveal themselves to be baseless concerns of an ill-informed observer.

One truly hopes that the inter-Korean roads and railways will not become “roads to nowhere” or “railways to nowhere,” but enduring paths to unity and unification on the Korean peninsula.


The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author's and not those of any other person, organization, or entity; they are the author's alone. Specifically, they do not represent the views of the Board of Directors of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) nor necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HRNK.