A Town Dreams of a Rail Link...But Cold-War Suspicions Die Hard

When Valentina Tishchenko surveys the remote Russian village of Khasan, she is hard put to say what has kept her here for decades. The 1,000 residents are under surveillance from border-guard towers of three nations--Russia, China, and North Korea. Cattle meander down a path lined by pillboxes, and hot-water pipes snake above ground from the boiler house to the crumbling Stalin-era apartment blocks. In the rail yard, 15 tracks run south toward North Korea. Two trains a week head that way.

Tishchenko, a 49-year-old grandmother with a luxuriant moustache, remembers when things were different--in the heyday of trade between the Soviet Union and North Korea. "There used to be work," she said. "The railroad was always busy, 24 hours a day. North Korea sent vegetables, fruit, machinery, and construction materials. We sent them grain, oil, timber, and tractors. Everybody's waiting for that to happen again."

And maybe, just maybe, it will. Khasan is the last Russian station on a railroad that runs all the way to Seoul, with one small break: the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Every adult in Khasan, it seems, is conversant with discussions between Seoul, Pyongyang, and Moscow about digging up land mines in the DMZ and closing the gap. Seoul and Moscow hope the rail link will open by September, says Lee Jae Choon, the South's ambassador to Russia. It would connect manufacturers to Russia's 10,000-kilometer Trans-Siberian Railroad in what Seoul calls "the Iron Silk Road." Coincidentally, the plan would also breathe life into this village.

Since the Korean War, South Korea has been an island, cut off from the Asian mainland by a hostile neighbor. Access to the Trans-Siberian--and to China's railroads--would lop weeks off the 40-day sea voyage from the South Korean port of Pusan to Helsinki, a major transshipment port. North Korea could earn $150 million a year in fees. Russia, eager to put its locomotives to use, has promised to help repair North Korea's antiquated rails, largely built during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation. Khasan residents simply want jobs, since 40% live below the official poverty level.

DEEP FEARS. "We are waiting for when the North and South unite their railroads," says Mayor Ivan Stepanov. In 1988, before the Soviet Union fell and subsidies to the North dried up, 200 workers handled a yearly two-way trade of 5.5 million metric tons of cargo, says station chief Aleksandr Noskov. Trade has since fallen to 240,000 tons, and the number of railway workers stands at 50. If trains roll in from Seoul, traffic should spike to 7 million tons.

But hurdles remain. North Korea's government, which supports the plan, is notorious for its table-pounding negotiating style. Korean and Russian rail gauges are different, so containers from Korea would have to be reloaded onto Russian flat cars, delaying the cargo, says H.J. Park, president of Woojin Global Logistics Ltd., a Seoul freight company that now ships cargo by sea from Pusan to the Russian port of Vostochny. Some try to play on deeper fears. Says Vladimir Kashtanov, marketing manager at the Vostochny port: "If you were a client, would you send your cargo through North Korea?"

Mayor Stepanov believes that Khasan will one day be more than just a cargo transit point. "My dream," he says, "is to create a free economic zone, and have fewer restrictions on cargo, and lots of tourists and foreigners." The town is surrounded by marshlands popular with birders and hunters. But before the tourists arrive, he better have a word with Russia's border guards. While city officials told a Russian and an American reporter that they were welcome to visit recently, the two ran into trouble. As they were interviewing Tishchenko at a store, six guards burst in, armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles. "You guys are coming with us," an officer said.

The problem is that Khasan remains officially closed to foreigners, and the guards don't seem to have gotten the word about the town's becoming a tourist haven. At headquarters, a commander scolded the visitors for photographing the rail bridge to Korea and ordered them to clear out of town. Chalk one up for the Old Guard.

By Russell Working in Khasan

Edited by Harry Maurer

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