Signs of North Korea Destroying Section of Inter-Korean Railway

On June 5th, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) said it detected signs that North Korean authorities had demolished a section of one of two railway lines that cross the DMZ. North Korea removed railway ties on a section of the Donghae Line north of the South Korean town of Jae-Jin, according to the NIS. The Donghae line links cities along the peninsula’s eastern coast, which leads to Mt. Geumgang.

Translated map of Inter-Korean Railways showing section of Donghae Railway North Korea destroyed (Photo: The Dong-A Ilbo)

South Korea’s Unification Ministry also said there are indications that North Korea will remove railway ties or other similar measures on the Gyeongui Line, located on the western side of the Korean Peninsula. The line is notable because it passes through the now-closed Kaesong Industrial Complex. The ministry said North Korea could destroy a section of the Gyeongui Line and then announce its intentions to officially disconnect the route during the plenary session of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in late June. However, the topic would also be discussed during the Politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), also set to occur in late June.

North Korea also installed landmines and removed streetlights along its side of two roadways that connected the country with South Korea, the Donghae and Gyeongui Land Routes, to shut down the routes.

Inter-Korea Railway Lines  

Both countries agreed to restore the two Inter-Korea Railway Lines during the first Inter-Korean Summit held in June 2000 in Pyongyang. Then South Korea President Kim Dae-jung and North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il announced the restoration of the lines with the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration. The two Koreas reconnected the railway in 2006 by linking an approximately 17-mile (27-kilometer) section along the eastern coast. The line has not been operational, with the exception of a pilot operation in 2007. However, former South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un agreed to modernize the Gyeonggui and Donghae Lines during an Inter-Korean Summit held in April 2018 on the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area of Panmunjeom. However, the railway projects reportedly fell through since the North Korea-U.S. Hanoi Summit between former U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim in February 2019.

Analysis

The destruction of a section of the Donghae Railway is another indication that North Korea is moving away from inter-Korea cooperation because it can rely on China and Russia to bolster its economy and military. Furthermore, the destruction is likely a larger part of Kim’s plan to expand the removal all symbols of inter-Korean cooperation. North Korea began destroying the symbols of inter-Korean relations because Kim understood the country could use its renewed relationship with Russia to extract concessions from China. Russia and China would provide North Korea with various concessions in an attempt to increase their influence over the country. For example, Russia and North Korea signed an October 2023 agreement in which North Korea provided the country with munitions and Russia provided technological assistance and transfers.

The technical assistance and military technology transfers significantly bolstered North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs while increasing its relationship with Russia. China likely increased its assistance to North Korea in response to the agreement, such as allowing North Korean front companies to use its banking and financial system to launder money and allowing North Koreans to conduct cyber operations on its soil. However, China would be limited in the support it gives to North Korea due to the potential for its banking system and economy to be adversely affected by any sanctions placed on the country.

The removal of the railway section may indicate that North Korea is expanding its removal of symbols of inter-Korean cooperation in favor of a hostile relationship. In December 2023, Kim changed the definition of inter-Korean ties to remove any mention of reunification, defining the ties as “between two states hostile to each other.” North Korea followed the announcement by issuing more aggressive statements and conducting provocative actions, such as sending balloons carrying feces and trash across the DMZ into Seoul and other cities. The destruction of the section also comes three weeks before the plenary meetings of the SPA and the Politburo meeting of the WPK.

Kim would likely use both meetings to not only increase but also codify the country’s removal of the symbols of inter-Korean relations. The codification would signal North Korea’s intentions to expand these efforts to other symbolic areas. One potential location would be to destroy or damage the infrastructure around the Kaesong Industrial Complex, since it is a major symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation. Another area would be to enhance its presence along the DMZ, such as by setting up additional guard posts or loudspeakers to play propaganda.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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