Russian Railways (RZhD) wants to take an active role in upgrading North Korea’s aging rail network, with a view to eventually creating an active Trans-Korean connection with South Korea, a source at the unitary enterprise stated from Moscow.
RZhD also wants to engage other parties in prospective projects for rebuilding North Korea’s rail network, the top contender being South Korean rail operator Korea Railroad Corporation (Korail), the Russian source told NK News.
Cultural ties and access to one central resource are why the Russians would like South Korea’s participation in any rail projects north of the Demilitarized Zone, the RZhD source noted.
“The South Koreans have access to capital,” he said.
But any steps towards creating an eventual North-South rail link will also require participation not only by North Korea and Russia, the RZhD source said.
“A Trans-Korean line needs all three sides,” he said, referring to South Korea.
However, other railroad companies also have the opportunity to join in on projects to modernize and update the network, the RZhD source added.
State-owned Korean State Railway is the sole operator of North Korea’s network.
The network had slightly more than 5,200 kilometers, of which approximately 3,500 kilometers was electrified, information from 2009 in the CIA World Factbook indicated.
Railroads appeared in what is now North Korea when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945.
Saturation bombing of North Korea by U.S. and United Nations forces’ in the 1950-1953 Korean War inflicted heavy damage on the network.
However, according to an article from the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, post-war aid, labor and equipment from the People’s Republic of China, as well as from the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia East Germany and Bulgaria helped to rebuild the network.
North Korea’s rail network today is in a “parshivyj,” or “lousy” state, the RZhD source noted.
He pointed to outdated signaling systems, points at junctions that require on-site hand operation, rather than the ability to operate them from a remote location, as well as rolling stock that in many cases is more than 50 years old and erratic power supplies.
Rumors have also abounded over the years of power supply failing on mainlines, stranding trains, their crews and passengers for hours, and pictures have also circulated on the Internet of older trains from the Pyongyang Metro jury-rigged to operate on the national rail network.
Each source also stressed that any final decisions on upgrading North Korea’s rail network rest with the upper echelons in its government.
“There is no clarity,” the RZhD source commented about the North Korean government’s current position on rail modernization.
“Support from the DPRK is the hardest and most important requirement,” a Korail official told NK News.
A North Korean government official confirmed to NK News the Russians’ interest in modernizing and creating a Trans-Korean line, but declined further comment.
THE SOUTHERN ELEMENT
Korail’s participation in the building and rebuilding of North Korea’s rail network is also dependent on South Korean government institutions, the same source warned; These include the Ministry of Unification, which would make the policy for Korail to follow, as well as either the Korea Rail Network Authority or the Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.
A January 19 report from the South Korean Joongang Daily English-language newspaper also outlined a plan to build a rail connection from South Korea to the towns of Sinuiju and Rajin, found in northwestern and northeastern North Korea, respectively, which link the country with China and Russia by rail.
That was only a “blueprint” presented to South Korean President Park Geun-hye, however, and much effort as well as time would be necessary to create a concrete and detailed plan, the Korail source noted.
Myriad factors also make it difficult for the Russians and North Koreans to forecast either a timeline or costs for any prospective projects, Russian and South Korean sources noted.
The 2007 opening of a rail line between North Korea and South Korea once again linked the two states, after their respective creations in 1945 led to the severance of connections.
North Korea’s Pyeongbu Line from Pyongyang crosses the Demilitarized Zone between the two states to Dorasan, in South Korea, which connects to Seoul on the Gyeongui Line.
The connection has seen very little use since reopening, and the shooting in 2007 of a South Korean tourist at the Mount Keumgang Tourist Region, in North Korea’s Kangwon Province, led to the suspension of the special rail service from South Korea to that destination.
While the Russians have not directly stated their interest in building a Trans-Korean line, they have nonetheless indicated an interest in rebuilding North Korea’s rail network, based on weekly video conferences between the Russian company and Korail about the 40-kilometer, rebuilt Khasan-Rajin line between eastern Russia and northeastern North Korea, the Korail source noted.
Commissioning of the rebuilt line began in late 2013, after five years of construction, and was RZhD’s pilot project on North Korea’s rail network.
The link’s main purpose is to provide another outlet for Russia’s coal exports to end-users in the Asia-Pacific region, including South Korea, and to relieve pressure on the ports of Vanino and Posyet in Russia’s Khabarovsk krai and Primosrky krai, respectively.
Russia’s federal government and North Korea originally signed an agreement in 2006 to rebuild the line, which took place under a Russian-North Korean joint venture.
That line is also dual-gauge, allowing Russian and North Korean trains to run over it as well as eliminating the need to swap out wheel sets at Tumangang.
(The distance between rails, known as gauge, on Russia’s network is 1,524mm. The majority of railroads on the Korean Peninsula use the standard 1,435mm gauge.)
But the seven years that it took for the project to come to fruition after the initial signing provide an indication of the prospective difficulties in modernizing North Korea’s rail network, the RZhD source warned.
Other prospects exist for the pilot line and there has been talk of eventually building an oil-terminal at Rajin to move crude for export and for internal consumption.
Building an oil terminal could potentially require upgrades to the Khasan-Rajin line, since it is now single-track and can only handle about 4 million tons of freight per year, the RZhD source noted.
No freight had previously entered North Korea from either Russia or its predecessor state the Soviet Union, the RZhD source added.
Besides the coal trains, only passenger trains now cross from Russia into North Korea. This includes a one-seat connection twice a month from Moscow to Pyongyang.
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Featured Image: Passenger Train in North Korea by Ray Cunningham on 2009-09-18 16:33:10