The two Koreas agreed, in high-level talks on Monday, to begin work in November or early December on a grand project: the re-connection of their railway and road networks.

While North Korea-US relations appear stalled on the issue of denuclearization, Monday’s agreement is just the latest initiative by Seoul and Pyongyang to improve cross-border relations.

Both parties said, in a press release put out by Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, that they would hold a ground-breaking ceremony in late November or early December. A detailed survey of the western railways in North Korea will be carried out from late October, while the railways along North Korea’s eastern coast will be inspected from early November, the press release added.

The overall project offers colossal potential, as it would reconnect South Korea, a political “island”, to the Eurasian landmass, with immense implications for the shipment of goods from its powerhouse economy to both Asia and Europe. However the complex software and hardware issues that would need to be resolved, plus considerable barriers presented by international sanctions, suggest that little substantial can be achieved in the near term.

Monday’s agreement was reached during high-level talks between South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon and his North Korean counterpart, Ri Son Gwon, Yonhap News Agency reported, citing press pool reports. The re-linking of cross-border communications networks had earlier been set forth as a plan in the April summit held between the two Korean leaders, Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in, in April.

Although the two Koreas established a joint governmental liaison office in a disused industrial complex outside the North Korean city of Kaesong just north of the Demilitarized Zone, today’s meeting was held at the truce village of Panmunjeom, which sits inside the four-mile wide DMZ which divides the two Koreas.

A land bridge to Eurasia

The opening of cross-border communications links that would permit South Korean trains and vehicles to travel through North Korea could massively upgrade Northeast Asia’s potential as a territorial logistics hub. It would offer products manufactured in the South, an industrial powerhouse, direct land access to Eurasia.

South Korea would cease to be a geopolitical island as it would be reconnected to the Eurasian mainland for the first time since the Korean War started in 1950. In addition to road and rail connections, there are also ambitious plans to run a natural gas pipeline from Russia, through North Korea, to South Korean and possibly on to Japan and even China.

The “Trans-Korea Rail” (TKR) project – also known as the “Iron Silk Road” – was first discussed under the Kim Dae-jung administration’s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea. That policy lasted from 1998-2008 over the course of two Seoul administrations, though the plans were never realized.

Two major rail lines, originally built by the Japan, which colonized Korea between 1910 and 1945, run up and down North Korea’s east and west coasts. The west coast line connects to the Chinese and Mongolian rail networks; the east coast line offers connections to Russia’s Trans-Siberian railway, and so eventually, on to Western Europe.

If South Korea could use rail connections through North Korea, it could accelerate the shipment of exports to Europe, and would be more economical than sea or air transport.

The two cross-border lines, east and west, were re-connected in 2006-7 at a total cost of 160 billion won (USD 141 million) according to UN data. Roads in the two “transport corridors” across the DMZ were also reconnected. South Korea also built state-of-the-art train stations and customs posts on its side of the border.

However, neither trains nor road vehicles from the south have ever traveled more than a few miles into North Korea, let alone through it. In the west, the transport connections from South Korea ran as far as the joint industrial zone established outside the city of Kaesong, itself eight kilometers north of the DMZ;  in the east, they ran up to the inter-Korean tourism complex at Mount Kumgang, 10 kilometers north of the DMZ.

Operations on both lines stopped in 2008, when North Korea halted overland travel amid political tensions sparked after a conservative government took power in 2008, overturning much of the “Sunshine Policy.”  Then, the tourist resort was closed when a South Korean was accidentally shot dead by a North Korean soldier in 2008, while the industrial complex was shuttered in 2016 amid inter-Korean tensions.

Symbolism or substance?

Today’s announcement appears largely symbolic, since the clearing of minefields and the physical reconnection of rail lines that run through the DMZ have already been achieved. And the likelihood of South Korean trains running through North Korea look unlikely in the near term.

Enormous software challenges would need to be surmounted before South Korean trains could start running via North Korea to Eurasia. Diplomatic and immigration issues, customs clearances and trans-shipment costs would all need to be thoroughly negotiated between Pyongyang and Seoul.

Moreover, there are also hardware challenges. If South Korean trains were to travel into and through North Korean, considerable modernization of the North’s rail network, as well as its collateral power supply, is almost certain to be required.

To realize the TKR project, economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the UN Security Council on North Korea since 2006 would need to be lifted or at least eased. The need for this was highlighted by panelists at last month’s 2018 KITA-CSIS Reconnecting Asia Conference, held in Seoul with government officials and experts from the Korea International Trade Association and Center for Strategic & International Studies.

“If cash is going to be transferred and things are going to be paid for” UN Security Council sanctions would present obstacles, Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert with Troy University in Seoul, told Asia Times. “There could be barter delivery of materials, and barter for the North Korean supply of labor, but [today’s agreement] just seems symbolic,” he added.

The safety of North Korea’s rickety rail system is a further issue.

A foreign journalist who has traveled widely by rail in North Korea told Asia Times he recalled seeing a wrecked, abandoned rail carriage at the bottom of a valley in the country’s mountainous northeast. It had apparently plunged there in what was almost certainly a deadly accident.

And in 2004, the town of Ryongchŏn in northeastern North Korea was devastated by a massive explosion. The cause of the disaster is unclear to this day, but appears to have been caused by two trains with explosive materials colliding in shunting yards in the rail station, or by a train with explosive materials for use in canal construction aboard making contact with a live power cable. Some sources have also alleged espionage.

In other developments agreed upon in today’s Panmunjom meeting, the two sides also agreed to hold Red Cross talks in November to discuss issues related to families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and to arrange a general-level military meeting as soon as possible, Yonhap reported.

There had been controversy earlier in the day, when an accredited journalist for South Korea’s leading daily, the conservative Chosun Ilbo, was denied access to the talks. The journalist, a North Korean defector, was told by Seoul that he could not attend.