The Koreas summit and the North Korean economy: why infrastructure is on the table

By Benjamin Katzeff 

It’s much to soon to expect concrete outcomes from all the summitry relating to the North Korean economy. Tentative signs suggest, however, that infrastructure will be on the table for the road ahead. A few of them:

  • Aside from a mention of promoting “balanced economic growth,” it’s really the only concrete measure within the economic sphere mention in the Panmunjom declaration: As a first step, the two sides agreed to adopt practical steps towards the connection and modernisation of the railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor as well as between Seoul and Sinuiju for their utilisation. Sure, this is fairly vague too, but at least it’s something.
  • Kim mentioned infrastructure and railways during the summit, lamenting the comparatively poor state of North Korea’s transportation system:

During the talks, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un praised the quality of South Korea’s high-speed train system in Pyeongchang, while citing worries that if Moon were to visit the North, he would be inconvenienced since the transportation infrastructure there is much less advanced. “If (Moon) comes to the North after living in the South, it may be embarrassing. We will make preparations for a comfortable visit,” Kim said.

The South Korean president responded with hopes of restarting cooperation to build a railway connecting the South and North — which the two sides had agreed on during previous inter-Korean summits, yet never put to action.

“If the railroad is connected with the North, both the South and North can use high-speed trains. This is contained in the joint declarations of June 15 (2000), and Oct. 4 (2007), but it has not been executed over the past 10 years,” Moon said.

In other words, it’s already being talked about by the two leaders. It’s fairly uncontroversial and not politically touchy, at least not relatively speaking.

  • It’s not a coincidence that Putin mentioned infrastructure specifically during a phone call with Moon Jae-in about the summit. In theory, at least, it’s a potential win-win-win situation, both for North and South Korea and for other countries in the region, and therefore politically palatable. The idea of massive infrastructure projects as a way to facilitate trade, and peace, is certainly not new and has been part of the plan for inter-Korean economic exchange before, and the blueprints are too many to fully keep track of. Kim Jong-un will almost certainly be seeking support in this area, a crucial one for the second leg of Byungjin.
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