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[Opinion] Trans-Siberian Railway

Posted May. 04, 2007 03:20,   


‘White birches stand in a long queue looking in one direction / Reindeer climb an ice cliff / And the back-lit blizzard glistens.’

“Siberian Estampes No. 1,” written by poet Choi Ha-rim, makes us feel as if we are experiencing the wonders of the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR) first-hand. Although South Korea is a peninsula, bordered on three sides by ocean, it has been a virtual island due to its northern border being blocked by North Korea. How great would it be if we could hop on a train and travel across the truce line as if it were no big deal, and also cross the Siberian plain to Europe?

Politicians have drawn up a plan that seems to transcend the romantic imagination of poets. It was belatedly revealed that President Roh Moo-hyun delivered a personally handwritten letter to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, through former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook, proposing the acceleration of the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR)-Trans-Korean Railway (TKR) connection. This is welcome news since the trans-continental railroad project is expected to play a pivotal role in promoting inter-Korean reconciliation and economic cooperation, and help the Korean peninsula to become the economic hub of Northeast Asia. However, it raises questions about the government’s approach. Why did Roh have to secretly send his personal letter to Putin, instead of sending the request through official diplomatic channels? Was Roh seeking some kind of political leverage by not informing this great news to the public?

Putin has been pushing for the “iron silk road project” more enthusiastically than Roh. The TKR-TSR connection will help Russia to secure its position as the center of Eurasia, generate profits by developing its Far East region and let it take on a bigger role within the tri-nation framework of the two Koreas and Russia, according to the report that Georgi Bulychev, a senior researcher of IMEMO – a Moscow-based research institute – made in the Japan Focus last year. The project will also be advantageous to North Korea as the secluded regime will become less vulnerable to the pressure of the U.S., play the role of stabilizer between China and Russia, and improve its railway system at no cost to itself. However, it is still doubtful whether Pyongyang will give the green light as increased exposure may result in regime change.

It is also suspicious whether the government has drawn up measures to secure finances for the inter-Korean project, which will cost over 1 trillion won. It is important to note that Russia is expecting the Korean government and businesses to fund the project and has, thus far, been unable to fully repay the loans it borrowed from Korea in 1991, when Russia and Korea established official diplomatic ties. It is also utterly impossible to expect North Korea, which at present cannot feed its own people, to fund the project. Although the idea of the cross-Siberian railway sounds good, talk of the project is causing public anxiety as the government may raise taxes without informing the public.

Kim Sun-deok, Editorial Writer, yuri@donga.com