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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
A South Korean government-run institute is seeking to fund research into how to overcome the obstacles posed by North Korea’s infamously-bitter winters in upgrading its railway system, documents seen this week by NK News showed.
The Korea Rail Network Authority, charged with the construction and maintenance of railways and managing facilities, will commission the research project to a private sector partner, allocating KRW 268 million ($227,504).
The organization, an affiliate of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT), said the project aims to mainly review the influence of climate — including the North’s low winter temperatures and heatwaves in the summer — on the operation of a future inter-Korean railway system.
The final goal of the project will be to establish standards for operating railways and related facilities in the parts of the North most prone to extreme low temperatures.
Seoul needs to pursue the research, the organization said, “in preparation for inter-Korean economic cooperation and the connection of continental railways,” while also pointing to the possibility of completing the construction of a Trans-Korea Railway (TKR) by “newly building and improving railways in North Korea” and connecting it to transcontinental railroads such as the Trans-China Railway (TCR) and the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR).
Researchers were also asked to investigate climate trends in the North, as well as examples of the standards of railway systems in cold regional climate conditions similar to the North.
The 15 month project appears to be an extended version of research proposed by the Korea Rail Network Authority in November last year, which focused on the development of plans to adapt current standards for roadbed construction to the North’s unique conditions.
The Korea Rail Network Authority website showed that the result of the bidding for that project was announced in early January this year, suggesting that it will now go ahead.
The two Koreas initially agreed on the adoption of “practical steps” to connect and modernize railways and roads on the east and west of the peninsula in last April’s Panmunjom Declaration.
A report on the outcome of the on-site survey in November and December was submitted to the South Korean National Assembly in March, and warned that the “obsolescence of entire facilities and system of Gyeongui and Donghae railways is generally very serious.”
“The operation of railways will be impeded by the defect in the rail to sleeper fastening system, the safety problem of bridges and tunnels among others,” it added, stressing that outdated infrastructure, sometimes over a century old, remains in use.
The average speed of operation is between 30 and 50 km per hour, it continued, with the exception of sections between Rajin and Tumen River renovated in 2013 with the help of Russia, the report continued.
Some trains can reportedly only run at a speed of 10-20 kilometers per hour, particularly between Kaesong and Sariwon Station on the Gyeongui line.
In response to that report, North Korean external-oriented media Uriminzokkiri in early April denounced Seoul for “rude behavior that lacks rudimentary common sense in economic cooperation projects and does not know the courtesy of the counterpart.”
The South Korean government, it added, was “using the materials collected like a spy” to slander the North.
Despite this, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has himself admitted that the country’s rail is outdated, describing it as “defective” during a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April last year.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Joint Press Corps