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Can railway cooperation materialize?

President Moon Jae-in’s proposal to set up an East Asian railroad community is not likely to gain steam without significant progress in talks between North Korea and the US over denuclearization, experts said.

Moon announced the proposal to establish road and rail links across the Korean Peninsula before the end of this year and create the East Asian Railroad Community encompassing the Koreas, China, Japan, Mongolia, Russia and the US.

“Beyond tackling the nuclear issue, the road map is about cooperation among the Koreas and neighboring countries, which could develop into an economic cooperative body or security cooperative body,” Koh Yu-hwan, professor at Dongguk University.

Moon hinted that the initiative could pave the way for the countries in East Asia to gradually expand their ties and enhance collective security in the region, as the creation of Europe’s six-nation coal and steel culminated in the European Union.

Moon’s proposal is rather meant to prompt North Korea and the US to accelerate their negotiations over complete denuclearization ahead of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s possible visit to Pyongyang, another expert said. 

Speculations are ripe that Pompeo will visit Pyongyang in the near future seeking a breakthrough in negotiations to follow up on their leaders’ pledges at the June 12 summit in Singapore. At the summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un committed to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and US President Donald Trump promised to provide a security guarantee for the North Korean regime.

“I think it is a means to urge North Korea to take steps to denuclearize. It is rather a long-term road map and I think it will take a long time to materialize,” said Shin Beom-chul, senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

But success of the plan is dependent on North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize as it requires the lifting of international sanctions against North Korea.

“It is largely up to North Korea (for Moon’s initiative to be realized)," Shin said.

While Moon’s proposal may be a lure for North Korea to take more concrete steps to denuclearize, it also raised the risk of going against the American pressure campaign aimed at enforcing sanctions on the North to cut off funds for nuclear weapons development.

Currently, the major railway project could constitute a violation of international sanctions against North Korea, which stops about 90 percent of all trade with the communist state and international finance.

The Trump administration on Wednesday stepped up sanctions pressure on North Korea by punishing thee firms based in China, Russia and Singapore, as well as the head of the Russian firm, accused of helping the North evade international sanctions.

Despite ongoing engagement between North Korea and the US for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said there will be no sanctions relief on North Korea until denuclearization is complete.

The two Koreas have conducted only field studies on modernizing and linking their railways across the peninsula, a result of the April 27 inter-Korean summit in which Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to ease military tensions and boost economic cooperation.

Mindful of that, Moon stressed that the condition for expanding cross-border economic cooperation is North Korea’s complete denuclearization. He also suggested the US be included in the proposed East Asia railway cluster.

“I think that including the US in the railway community is a symbolic move that shows the government’s awareness of the US’ influence on the Korean Peninsula,” said Kim Hyun-wook, professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

South Korea has sought to improve inter-Korean ties and expand cross-border exchanges following the April 27 inter-Korean summit, but it supports the US and international community in maintaining sanctions against the North.

Korea Herald daum