KORAIL chief calls for Seoul to lead inter-Korean railway

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Aug 21, 2015 - 19:57
  • Updated : Aug 21, 2015 - 19:57
As KORAIL president and chief executive, Choi Yeon-hye was sedate, soft-spoken and well versed in the intricate web of railroad technologies, as well as the industry’s inner workings, brandishing her 20-odd years of expertise as a “railman.”

Touching on a now-severed inter-Korean railway and the ongoing program to rebuild its southern section, however, she appeared resolute and principled. Reconnecting the line across the border is not a matter of commercial feasibility, she said, but of national pride, and what she called railway sovereignty.
Choi Yeon-hye, KORAIL president and chief executive, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald. Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald

“As railroads are an integral part of our infrastructure network combining electronic, signal, information technology, train management and all other related technologies with high technical dependency, we have to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to any rail project with North Korea. We must be in control,” Choi said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“Given the relatively short length of our rail network, if Russia or China takes initiative in North Korea, we will have to readjust our own infrastructure to be compatible with their system. It’s not about money ― imagine a train built by another country traveling across the peninsula at a time when we are capable of making and operating it.”

Despite a persistent cross-border standoff, South Korea should speed up the ongoing partial restoration of the Gyeongwon Line linking Seoul and the eastern North Korean city of Wonsan, she said, which will help relay its resolve to the North and bring forward the reclusive country’s reform and, ultimately, unification.

“There’s this prevalent awareness in our society that the Trans-Korea Railway just cannot happen because of North Korea’s uncooperative attitude. But we, for our part, are very ill-prepared for an era of rail unification,” she said, referring to insufficient track capacity, cut-off routes within the South and other issues.

“We have to make preparations on our own for now, even though the North may not be ready yet. Our efforts such as the current restoration work can be a first step to display our resolve and aspiration.”

The 59-year-old train expert took the helm of the state-run railway agency in October 2013 as its first-ever female chief executive. She began delving into the industry while studying business administration in Germany for her master’s and doctoral degrees in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After returning home, Choi led an illustrious career as a professor at the Korea National Railroad College and later its president and vice chief of KORAIL until she entered politics and made an unsuccessful bid for a National Assembly seat in 2012.

To her, the absence of North Korea’s participation was the sole, yet unmistakable, flaw in the “Eurasia Express” project, a special train that recently concluded its 20-day, 14,400-kilometer journey from Asia through Europe.

With Pyongyang remaining aloof toward the initiative, the some 200 participants inevitably had to fly to Vladivostok or Beijing before starting the excursion, skipping the upper part of the peninsula.

In a display of South Korea’s longing for more exchanges with their northern neighbors and an eventual unification, President Park Geun-hye took a ride on the DMZ train to Baengmagogi in the border county of Cheorwon, Gangwon Province, early this month.

The trip was chiefly designed to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for the reconstruction of a 9.3-kilometer stretch of the southern part of the 222.3-kilometer-long Gyeongwon Line, which was launched in 1914 and severed in 1945 following the territorial division.

“It provided a new chance to wake up to the stark reality of the national division, having to travel through others’ skies to get to Vladivostok, a route that can take only five hours by train if the two Koreas’ railroads were connected,” Choi said.

Last year, KORAIL became an affiliate member of the Organization for Cooperation between Railways to drum up support from other countries for the cross-border venture and help boost the pangovernmental rail industry.

Yet it marked a detour ― or a stopgap measure ― because South Korea has for years been struggling to secure full membership in the Warsaw-headquartered body due to Pyongyang’s steadfast opposition.

During an interview with visiting South Korean reporters, the OSJD’s chief painted an upbeat outlook for South Korea’s full membership, saying it is seeking to scrap the longstanding consensus-based decision-making procedure and make it possible for a new member to sign up with a three-quarter majority by adopting a new convention.

But his remarks also fueled concerns that the new norm may trigger backlash for overturning the 60-year-old system and provoke Pyongyang to exit, which will likely complicate Seoul’s drive.

“Ruling out North Korea is not right and should never happen, and with its train programs, it would not want to walk away from the organization,” Choi said.

“But full membership is a must ― the OSJD sets the stage for heated debate over rules on track allocation, fare rates, technical standardization and other issues closely related to member countries’ national interests. ... It is pivotal in the long term to join it, to help foster conditions that are favorable to us and to defend our practical benefits.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (