Asia Pulse
October 2, 2002 Wednesday
Project of S. Korea-Japan undersea tunnel grabs new spotlight

SEOUL, Oct 2, 2002 - The possibility of building a tunnel under the sea between South Korea and Japan has emerged again.

A five-member Japanese delegation paid a visit last month to South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Hyuk-kyu and briefed the southeastern provincial government on the neighboring country's plans for the undersea tunnel.

Led by Daizo Nozawa, a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker in Japan's House of Councilors, the delegation reportedly asked the province to play an active role in linking the two countries by the tunnel. It explained the economic benefits the province could receive if it were constructed.

Nozawa, known as a key Japanese figure in the civil engineering projects for the past 10 years, also toured the province's Geoje region.

This had been marked by a Japanese expert group as the starting point of the contemplated tunnel on the South Korean side, officials at the regional government said.

There are three routes involving the tunnel's passage contemplated by the Society for the Japan-Korea Tunnel Research, a private group set up in 1983 and financed by the Unification Church of the Rev. Moon Sun-myung.

Two out of the three routes run from Geoje to Karatsu in Saga Prefecture, southwestern Japan, while the remaining route connects Busan, South Korea's second biggest city, to the Japanese city of Karatsu.

All three options call for the tunnel's passage via the Japanese islands of Iki and Tsushima located in the middle of the waters between the two neighbors.

The Japanese notion of such a submarine tunnel dates back to 1939 when a Japanese railroad expert conceived a railway connection between Tokyo and Berlin.

If the submarine tunnel is built, Japanese railroads could be linked to European cities through an inter-Korean railroad, the Trans-Siberia Railway (TSR) and the Trans-Chinese Railway (TCR).

Economic benefits generated by the tunnel's construction are obviously behind the project. Japanese experts have trumpeted it normally takes 20 days for a seaborne transport from Japan to Europe but the tunnel, if built, could cut the time to just two days.

Costs for logistics on the Japan-Europe route will shrink to one fourth of the current shipping costs, they have said.

Other developments involving railroads on the Korean Peninsula also gave further momentum to the tunnel project.

Last month South and North Korea began clearing land mines inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to reconnect two sets of railways and roads, severed since the 1950-1953 Korean War, through the heavily fortified DMZ.

The two Koreas have agreed the Gyeongui rail line set to link Seoul to Sinuiju, a border city in the North, via Pyongyang will be completed by the end of this year. It is also hoped a road running parallel to the railway will be completed by next spring.

Work on the Donghae (East Sea) rail line and an adjacent road linking eastern coastal cities is expected to take about a year.

Leaders of South Korea and Japan also have called for the implementation of the project on many occasions.

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung said the two countries should review the construction of the tunnel linking Hokkaido, northern Japan, to Europe as "a dream of the future" in September 2000 when he held a summit with then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. In the following month, Mori proposed pushing ahead with the project at the Seoul summit of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).

But both governments have stopped short of announcing it as a bilateral project.

Since the 1980s the Japanese research group has been solely engaged in detailed research and exploration of prospective sites for the tunnel.

In 1988 the group had a Korean firm explore the sea off Geoje to examine the geological features in the region and judged the South Korean side is better for the project than the Japanese side.

For South Korea, the Ministry of Construction and Transportation commissioned three research institutes to study the feasibility of the project earlier this year.

The perceived tunnel across the Korean Straits, with a length of 200 kilometers, is the world's biggest if it is built.

It will dwarf the 50-kilometer tunnel across the English Channel of Dover between Britain and France and the 53.9-kilometer Seikan tunnel connecting Japan's Honshu and Hokkaido, of which 23.3 km are beneath the sea.

Japanese experts estimate completion of the tunnel will take 15 years and costs US$77 billion.

Some Korean experts take a cautious stance against the project, expressing worries about the interests of South Korea and Japan colliding as Japan is expected to gain the upper hand in the logistics area of the Northeast Asia. This is feared again to raise the specter of Japan's expansion of its influence in the region, they say.

Meanwhile, in an interview last month with the Japanese newswire Kyodo News last month, Alexander Losyukov, the Russian vice foreign minister in charge of Asia-Pacific affairs, raised the prospect of building the undersea tunnel to link up the railway system in South Korea and Japan, adding such a project is "something for the distant future, but feasible."