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Inter-Korean Project to Restore Gyeongui Line



South and North Korea are gearing up for railroad cooperation. The two sides jointly inspected sections on the Donghae railway line that runs along the east coast of the Korean Peninsula on July 20 and those on the Gyeongui line on the western side on July 24. The railway conditions seemed to be generally good. If North Korea’s denuclearization proceeds smoothly and sanctions on the North are lifted, the two Koreas will likely be able to connect those cross-border railways. In fact, it was 2000 when they first cherished hope for the connection of the severed railroads. Today, we’ll review the inter-Korean joint project to restore the Gyeongui rail line. 

On September 18, 2000, then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung attended the groundbreaking ceremony for connecting the Gyeongui Line at the Imjingak Pavilion near the inter-Korean border. His voice was filled with emotion, as the day marked a historic beginning of linking the railway that had been severed for half a century. Let’s hear from Lee Chul, director of a local corporation called “Rail of Hope.” 

It had great symbolic significance. The railway would link the two Koreas with China, from Seoul all the way to Beijing via Pyongyang and Sinuiju. Moreover, it would be necessary for South Korea to allow people and materials to travel to the Gaeseong Industrial Complex in North Korea and to bring in finished products from there. The Gyeongui Line was the nearest train route between Gaeseong and the South. 

The Gyeongui Line is a 518.5-kilometer-long railroad linking Seoul with the Sino-North Korean border town of Sinuiju. The main artery on the Korean Peninsula was completed in 1906, but it was severed during the Korean War in 1951, giving rise to a phrase, “The iron horse still hopes to run again.” Most South Koreans are familiar with the phrase, which symbolizes the division of Korea. The 2000 inter-Korean summit was a turning point for the long-severed railway. Leaders of the two Koreas agreed on the connection of cross-border railroads during their summit in June 2000. In September that year, a ground-breaking ceremony for connecting the Gyeongui and Donghae rail lines took place. And on May 17, 2007, the South and the North operated trains on a trial basis. 

The Gyeongui Line reopened for the first time in 56 years, with the “iron horse” containing Korean people’s ardent wish for peace and unification running across the Military Demarcation Line. That day, Munsan Station in South Korea was filled with excitement. 

Many officials of the Korea Railroad Corporation or Korail were there, and I boarded the train as one of those in charge of the project. It was a thrilling event. The train left Munsan Station and ran to Bongdong Station, which was close to the Gaeseong Industrial Park. It was historically significant, indeed, that the train crossed the Military Demarcation Line. The atmosphere was exciting, and many of those who boarded the train, including North Korean residents, were moved to tears. Their faces are still vivid in my mind. 

Mr. Lee still remembers how excited he was at that time, when he was on the train bound for Gaeseong as the president of Korail. The train departed at 11:30 a.m., carrying some 150 officials from South and North Korean delegations. The test-run was conducted on a 27.3-kilometer-long section between Munsan and Gaeseong. The train crossed the border into North Korea for the first time since national division and arrived in Gaeseong, when people there cheered loudly, shouting “unification.” 

The two Koreas successfully conducted the trial run, leaving their confrontational past behind. On December 11, 2007, regular freight service started on the Gyeongui Line, from South Korea’s Munsan to Bongdong in the North. Let’s hear from then-Unification Minister Lee Jae-jung. 

A vehicle can transport 4 to 5 tons of freight at a time, but using the rail service, nearly 100 times more freight can be carried at a time. 

From that day on, both Koreas nurtured hope to link the cross-border railways, which could hopefully stretch to the continent. The Gyeongui Line would be used for carrying products from the Gaeseong Industrial Complex in the beginning. But if it was linked to China by way of Sinuiju, the railway would connect the Korean Peninsula, which had been isolated like an island due to division, with the continent. Unfortunately, the train service stopped on November 28, 2008, following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist at North Korea’s Geumgang mountain resort in July that year. It came as a great shock to Mr. Lee, who led the trial operation of the train on the Gyeongui Line. 

I remember that freight trains operated 222 times during ten months. It was highly significant that the inter-Korean railway operated on a regular basis for the first time since the Korean War. Sadly, it stopped operation in less than a year. It was such a shame. I was so frustrated that I felt like my heart stopped beating. It was painful to see the iron horse stop again, after it was able to run again after long years of division. I just hoped that the railroad would reopen quickly. That was all I could do. 

Due to the strained inter-Korean relations, the railway project hit the wall of division again. North Korea conducted its second nuclear test in 2009 and the South Korean warship Cheonan sank from a torpedo attack in 2010. Amid the series of bad news in inter-Korean relations, the ill-fated Gyeongui Line has been unused to this day. However, South and North Korea agreed to connect the two cross-border railways in the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration that was adopted at this year’s inter-Korean summit, boding well for their railroad cooperation. 

South Korea mostly depends on air or maritime transportation, which costs a lot of time and money. But cargo transportation by rail would only cost between one-fifth and half of carriage by air or sea, in terms of transportation charges. The Gyeongui Line on the western part of the peninsula is important, given the increasing economic exchanges with China. But the eastern Donghae Line that would be linked to Russia, Europe and even London will enable South Korea to gain sizable profit by trading oil and gas. Many people might be excited at the thought of riding the Trans-Siberian Railway. But I’d like to focus more on economic benefits from the opening of the inter-Korean railroad, which will support the Gaeseong Industrial Park business and hopefully serve as the gateway to the Eurasian continent. 

The restoration of the Gyeongui Line will connect the two Koreas and also open an era of an “Iron Silk Road” that links Europe with Asia. Once the rail sections in North Korea are modernized, trains can run on this line anytime. Here’s hoping that the cross-border railway will open as soon as possible. 

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