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An Ingenious Plan to Modernize North Korea's Trains

In Korean peace talks, all eyes are on denuclearization. But a plan to re-link the nations’ railways could be far more transformative.
Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un cross a bridge in the Demilitarized Zone.
Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un cross a bridge in the Demilitarized Zone.Korea Summit Press Pool via AP

When the North and South Korean leaders had their historic meeting in April, South Korean president Moon Jae-in told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he would like to travel through North Korea to hike up Mt. Baekdu. In response, Kim made a surprising admission: he would be “embarrassed” to have Moon travel through North Korea, as “our transportation, honestly, would be uncomfortable.” Kim also noted how North Korea’s Olympians who participated in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics praised South Korea’s high-speed railroad.

That statement, going against the grain of the North Korean regime’s steadfast propaganda, was likely Kim’s signal that he wants to improve his country’s railways. Moon, for his part, handed Kim a thumb drive containing his plan to do just that. At the center of Moon’s “New Economic Map of the Korean Peninsula” is a railway modernization plan that’s much more than an infrastructure project. It’s a key piece in the geopolitical puzzle to connect North Korea to the world—and entice the regime to keep its promises. When it comes to the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s denuclearization always gets top billing. The international press barely noted the importance of the other points included in the Panmunjom Declaration for peace. But the agreement to re-link the railways between the two countries has the potential to be even more transformative than the promise of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.