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North Korea - Roads and Highways

According to North Korean statistics, there are 78,700 kilometers (62,960 miles) of road in North Korea. And most of it isn’t paved. The total length of all paved roads in North Korea outside major metropolitan centers is just under 800 km. To put this in perspective, South Korea, with a slightly smaller land area, has at present about 80,000 km of paved road outside the major metro areas. There are many tunnels and bridges as there are many mountainous regions. North Korea’s road system divides up its roads into six classes depending on their type, ranging from highways to small roads within towns.

Generally speaking, Leninist command economies paid little attention to infrastructure. It was believed that factories and industrial equipment were vastly more important than roads, electricity, and phone lines. However, even against such a background, the situation in North Korea is somewhat unusual.

The road network was estimated to be around 31,200 kilometers (19,400 mi) in 1999, up from between 23,000 kilometers (14,000 mi) and 30,000 kilometers (19,000 mi) in 1990, of which only 1,717 kilometers (1,067 mi), 7.5%, are paved. However, the CIA World Factbook reported 25,554 kilometers (15,879 mi) of roads with only 724 kilometers (450 mi) paved as of 2006 [the most recent date for which CIA estimates are available]. Given poor road quality, drivers often swerve and change lanes to evade potholes, including going into opposite-direction lanes at times. Likewise, sections under repair may not be properly marked, so oncoming traffic may be expected even on a divided motorway. There are three major multilane highways: a 200-kilometer (120 mi) expressway connecting Pyongyang and Wonsan on the east coast, a 43-kilometer (27 mi) expressway connecting Pyongyang and its port, Nampo, and a four-lane 100-kilometer (62 mi) motorway linking Pyongyang and Kaesong. Reunification Highway runs all the way from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang to the Demilitarized Zone that divides the North from South Korea, 170 kilometers (100 miles) away.

North and South Korea agreed 28 June 2018 to improve two road routes in the North up to international standards, paving the way for further economic cooperation between the two countries. The two parties agreed to modernize the Route Donghae on the east coast and the Route Gyeongeui in the western interior, by cooperating in design and construction. The Route Gyeongeui will connect Seoul and Pyongyang, via the northern border city of Kaesong.

Infrastructure means the facilities and services necessary for an economy to function efficiently. It is usually called social overhead capital (SOC) such as roads, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, telecommunications, and so on. When the Six-Party Talks in Beijing gave rise to a hope the North nuclear issue could be settled sooner or later, a huge amount of economic grant to the North seemed to be necessary. So far several suggestions have been made that a project financing would be useful to the North-South economic cooperation.

So it is necessary to study a feasible action plan for such a financing scheme, which requires the followings: There should be long-term stable cash flows; The project should function as a catalyst and reliable resources to further economic development; and The North Korean technocrats could learn how to handle large-scale projects. Highway construction projects are believed to satisfy the above-mentioned conditions.

Gaeseong-Shinuiju Highway, which will be named a part of Asian Highway No.1 (AH1), would meet the logistic needs of manufacturers and merchants from South Korea and northern provinces of China as well. The construction projects of North Korean highways could be supported by, at first, the North-South Cooperation Fund of South Korea, and next, the concerted efforts by the United States, European countries and supranational institutions like the World Bank (IBRD), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and newly established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Ther is an effective example from the West and East German relations before the unification. In the 1970s, West Germany helped East Germany reconstruct the highways leading to West Berlin. The West German government paid to East Germany the aggregate toll money in advance, which was often used as collateral for future foreign borrowings of East Germany.

In December 2018 South Korea decided to waive a preliminary feasibility study for a project to build a highway near the border with North Korea as part of efforts to reconnect a cross-border road The Ministry of Strategy and Finance recently accepted the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport's request to forego the feasibility study for the project to build an 11.8 kilometer highway between Munsan and Dorasan Station, just south of inter-Korean border by 2020. "As the Munsan-Dorasan highway belongs to the South, the government can push forward the construction project irrespective of international sanctions on the North. The highway is not subject to an economic analysis as it is a core part of inter-Korean economic cooperation," a spokesman for the transport ministry said.

The North Korean government remained rather indifferent to the country’s infrastructure, which is seen as inferior to “real” industries. To the extent they care about infrastructure issues at all, the top North Korean economic managers tend to pin their hope on massive mobilization campaigns. In other words, they believe they can order local housewives to come out and, for a few weeks, participate in unpaid labor of countryside roads. However, modern highways are far beyond the capacities of such labor forces. Such undertakings require highly skilled, specialized labor, and advanced equipment. This does not seem to be understood by DPRK decision makers. Infrastructure development is still largely left to housewives and soldiers to deal with.

North Korean authorities have been mobilizing students to assist in construction projects since the 1960s. At that time, Kim Jong Il, while a student at Kim Il Sung University, was mobilized to help expand a road between downtown Pyongyang and the city’s northeastern Yongseong district—a distance of about 16 kilometers (10 miles). Later, Kim set forth his experience as a model for student participation in construction projects.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 11:42:40 ZULU