Mount Fuji

The iron 'Silk Road' 

If you think about it, you'll realize that you can walk from Pyongyang to Paris.

Barely concealed behind the fervor to open up North Korea is excitement about reconnecting the rail line that runs from Seoul to Pyongyang, and thence, via the Trans-Siberian and the European railway system, through the Channel Tunnel, the Chunnel, to finally end up in Waterloo Station [Editor: since Dec. 2007,  St. Pancras] in London.

Then, logically, it would be taken one step further and linked up to Tokyo. Yoshiro Mori, Japan's Prime Minister [Editor: from April 5, 2000 to Aril 26, 2001], who has a well deserved reputation as a blockhead, also has something of a visionary streak. He has proposed building a tunnel linking Japan's southernmost island of Kyushu to Korea.

The construction is technically possible, the BBC quoted him as saying during an Asia-Europe meeting in Seoul. But, he went on to add, "the problem is money." $77 billion worth, in fact, which is what Korean and Japanese experts estimate it would cost to build.

The tunnel is feasible, a researcher at the Korea Railroads Institute was quoted as saying. If realized, the project would help Japan become part of the Asia continent, not an isolated island state.

The longest railway tunnel in the world runs between Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido and the main island of Honshu, traveling 53.9 km (33.4 miles) beneath the seabed to connect the two islands. The Channel tunnel is only slightly shorter.

However, from Kyushu to the southern tip of Korea is about 180 km (about 113 miles). Despite the distance, there are several favorable factors that assure that someday the tunnel will be built.

The Straits of Tsushima, which separate Korea and Japan, are relatively shallow. Most of the water is between 100 to 200 meters (300 to 600 feet) deep, and part of Japan's continental shelf. England and Norway both have extensive experience in building offshore oil platforms in the North Sea, which is the same depth and even stormier.

The Straits of Tsushima are also dotted with islands. Right in the middle of the Straits is Tsushima Island itself, which is nearly cut in two by a deep bay in the middle, and large enough to have a number of villages on it. It lies in the middle of the Straits, somewhat closer to Korea than Japan, roughly 100 km offshore from Japan. Between Tsushima Island and Kyushu itself lies also the island of Iki, about 25 km offshore from Kyushu. On the Korean side there are also some offshore islands, but none of them would quite reduce the distance from Tsuhima to Korea as Iki does from the Japanese side.

Probably any tunnel built would be like the bridge-tunnel across the Skagerak between Denmark and Sweden that recently opened. On both the Danish and Swedish side it starts out as a bridge, and then uses convenient islands to dip on into a tunnel.

Crossing the Straits of Tsushima would involve much the same type of scheme, with possibly also some artificial islands on both the Japanese and Korean sides to cut distances even further.

A train could conceivably pull out of Tokyo station someday, smoke blowing out behind, loaded with containers bound for Europe. Between a week to ten days later, it would pull into Waterloo Station, probably after having changed engines and crews dozens of times during the journey.

The economics seem to be there. Given the cost of sending a container around the Horn, and with many container ships now so large they won't fit through Suez, sending the same container by rail can be economical, with the right types of goods, things that are too urgent for ships but too expensive for airfreight.

But don't look for anyone to start digging soon. As Korean railways says, the cost will be astronomical, and few people — particular the crowd of flacks that trundles after him in hope of stopping him before he commits another gaffe — takes anything Mori says seriously. Still, the idea is now out in the open, and it is only a matter of time before an iron Silk Road links Europe and Asia via Siberia.

Editor's note: Bill Stonehill hails from Chicago, Illinois. Trained as an engineer and China specialist, he has now been living in Tokyo for well over 20 years. He imports Swiss watches, is expert at taking them apart, and if anyone knows what makes Japan tick too then he does. From 1999 until 2001 he wrote a regular Japan column for the Morrock News Service (sadly discontinued), which was enjoyed by Web-surfers around the world. We greatly appreciate the author's allowing us to republish some of his very best articles here in Japan Perspectives.