Postcard from…Pusan

With their new high-speed train system, South Koreans can travel the full length of their country, from Seoul in the north to Pusan on the southern coast, in under 3 hours. In the next phase of construction, new tracks will cut this travel time in half again. The KTX train (pictured to the left) puts the U.S. rail system to shame. And puts Korea on par with Japan for quality of train service.

But the KTX train is not the headline rail news in Korea. Soon, passenger and freight trains will be traveling the entire length of the Korean peninsula: straight across the Demilitarized Zone. At the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, South Korean president Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il agreed in principle to reestablish train links severed by the Korean War. In the last six years, South Korea has spent time and money helping the North upgrade its side of tracks. Finally, after several delays, North and South Korean trains made a ceremonial run last May.

But the two Koreas are not interested in simply standing on ceremony. At the second inter-Korean summit in October, Kim Jong Il and South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun agreed to complete the rail upgrade during 2008. The two sides plan to send a joint cheering squad by train to the Beijing Olympics next summer.

Cheerleaders are just the beginning. Sending freight by train rather than by sea will save time and money, not only for Korea on the sending end but for consumers at the terminus of the rail lines. Shipping freight from Pusan to the Russian port of Nakhodka costs just as much as sending the products by freight from Nakhodka to the end of the trans-Siberian railroad, a distance nearly 20 times greater.

In the not-too-distant future, it might be able to travel by high-speed train from London all the way to Pusan, the southern port of South Korea. And perhaps by that time, Korea and Japan will have built a tunnel between Pusan and Fukuoka to connect their two countries. Cooperation between Europe and Asia – facilitated by the Asia-Europe Meeting – will rest on a solid foundation. And the United States, so desperate to remain anchored economically in Asia that it pushed hard for the Asia-Pacific Economic Community in the 1990s, will find itself the odd continent out.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) at the Institute for Policy Studies.