Officials from both Korean states have met at the Peace House in Panmunjom to discuss a trans-Korean rail link that would also link-up with Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway to create a substantial transport corridor. Russian engineers have already begun preliminary construction of a modern highway linking Russia’s eastern regions to the border with the DPRK, while plans for a Russia-Korea gas pipeline are also in the works now that energy hungry South Korea can be directly linked to Russia through a pipeline traversing the DPRK.
South Korea has already pledged $35 billion towards the rail project which dovetails with both the pipeline project and further road building which will help to seamlessly link the three states. While the formal beginning of the current Korean peace process occurred when during his 2018 New Year message DPRK leader Kim Jong-un extended an olive branch to Seoul and called for a new era of constructive peaceful relations, even at the height of tensions on the Korean peninsula, Russia had looked to pursue new avenues of trans-Korean connectivity to ensure peace through prosperity in a win-win format.
In September of 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his intention to work with both Korean states towards a tripartite economic cooperation initiative that would allow for the free flow of Russian gas into the Korean peninsula via a new pipeline while also expanding trade between Russia and both Korean states. At the time, South Korean President Moon Jae-in warmly embraced Putin’s proposals, while the DPRK delegation at the Eastern Economic Forum stated that when various security concerns are adequately addressed, Pyongyang too would be interested in pursuing Russia’s proposals.
As Putin’s proposals came only weeks before Donald Trump’s infamous threat to “destroy” the DPRK and just under four months prior to Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year’s Address in which he stated his intention to enter a new era of peace and cooperation with South Korea, few paid attention to the excitement surrounding Putin’s initial proposal. Now Putin’s proposals are already germinating far sooner than many expected as recently as the beginning of 2018.
During his recent visit to Moscow, Moon Jae-in spoke optimistically about a would-be Russia-Korea Transport Corridor in the following way:
“Russia and South Korea have huge potential as far as economic, humanitarian and cultural exchanges go. The potential has not been exhausted yet. We can involve North Korea in cooperation after permanent peace is established in the region”.
When addressing proposals to construct a rail link between Russia with South Korea via the DPRK, the South Korean President said,
“Once the Trans-Korean Main Line is built, it may be connected to the Trans-Siberian Railway. In this case, it will be possible to deliver goods from South Korea to Europe, which would be economically beneficial not only to South and North Korea but to Russia as well”.
Moon further stated that areas of cooperation could include “railroads, gas industry, electricity production, the construction of port infrastructure facilities, agriculture, fishery, ship-building and so on”.
While many have rightly stressed that the wider world’s political and commentary classes underestimated Kim Jong-un’s particular zeal for rapid economic reform in the format of a peace through prosperity model, many have equally underestimated Moon Jae-in’s ability to embrace multi-polar projects for the benefit of a South Korean nation that is undergoing a profound economic pivot away from its traditional US partner and towards countries like China, Russia and the ASEAN bloc of nations. In this sense, the timing of Seoul’s shift to multipolarity and the DPRK’s shift away from de-facto isolation could not have come at a better time in respect of the material interests of both Korean states, as well as that of a single Korean people.
Russia therefore can be said to have laid important foundations for the current acceleration of interest in linking the Korean peninsula to Russia, even though as recently as late 2017 few outside of the region felt that such proposals would come to fruition. The speed at which the Korean peace process is moving, has clearly defied the cynical prognostications which were uttered when Putin first unveiled his plans for tripartite cooperation between Seoul, Pyongyang and Moscow.
With South Korea having expressed interest in China’s One Belt–One Road initiative even before the formal instigation of the peace process with the DPRK, the future development of a trans-Korea rail and road system linked both to China through one terminus and Russia through another is now entirely possible. This could not only revolutionise trade between north east Asia and western Eurasia, but through existing maritime routes linking both south China and South Korea to major south east Asian nations, one can now envisage a series ASEAN to western Eurasian belts and roads which would bypass the Strait of Malacca, thus providing a safe route for pan-Asian goods into northern Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
In this sense, by opening up vital and previously untapped trading routes that were previously impossible due to the hostile relationship between the two Korean states, when combined with South Korea’s flourishing trading relations with once distant China and Russia – a new era not only for peace but for world trade has been opened thanks to the reconciliation process between Pyongyang and Seoul.