On November 30, a South Korean train with a sign reading ‘Seoul to Sinuiju’ crossed into the North, The Korea Times reported. Believe me, this is more important to prospects for world peace than Donald Trump’s showy, insubstantial summit with North Korea’s dictator earlier this year.
For, the South Korean train has begun a simply remarkable 18-day, 2,600-km journey towards an extraordinary goal. Officials from both North and South are on board. Jointly, they will inspect rail tracks running along North Korea’s west and east coasts, preparatory to re-connecting the railways of the two Koreas. That’s what South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in agreed with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un at their summits earlier this year. That’s what’s seriously getting underway. South Korea claims a formal rail re-connection ceremony may take place this year. Four weeks from January 1, that’s a tall order, but this is truly a wait-and-see moment.
It’s obvious why all of this matters. With rail links would come people-to-people contact and commercial, cultural and educational collaboration. Weekend trips from North to South or vice versa may no longer be beyond the pale. Joint ventures – large or small – may no longer be a fantasy. It would mean a North Korea presumably less keen to nuke its neighbour. That said, it would mean North Korea actively embracing all the potential for transformative change (and acceptance it will move from being a controlled. family-ruled hermit kingdom). That’s a big ask but stranger things have happened, as history attests.
Overall though, the South Korean train journey and the whole idea of reconnecting the two Koreas is the latest sign of the decoupling of rapprochement between North and South and American efforts to convince the North to give up its nuclear weapons. There’s little doubt which is making progress.
Astonishing though it may sound, the US-led world order is leery of all this touchy-feeliness between North and South Korea. In August the United Nations Command, which administers the southern side of the demilitarised zone on the border, barred South Korea from sending a train north, thereby halting the railway-reconnection project.
But the train has now left the station. Let’s see where it goes and how far it gets.