South Korean ports deal with North ‘could be step towards broader cooperation’ involving China
- Incheon and Nampo at heart of commercial and passenger sea traffic proposal as UN dials down sanctions on Pyongyang to encourage trade ties between Koreas
South Korean plans for a new ferry and cruise facility at the port city of Incheon will boost commercial and passenger sea traffic between the Koreas and, eventually, China, a leading South Korean state entrepreneur said.
Hong Kyung-sun, a vice-president of the Incheon Port Authority [IPA], told the South China Morning Post that his organisation was looking to connect Incheon with the North Korean port city of Nampo.
Hong was speaking after the United Nations Security Council approved a plan to assess the viability of linking rail services between the two nations, exempting the study from sanctions against Pyongyang.
At three inter-Korean summits this year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in offered Seoul’s help to upgrade the North’s railway network and tie it to the South’s.
Re-connecting the sea routes might be the next phase of the inter-Korean cooperation, according to Hong.
“The port authority has created a task force to study inter-Korean [marine] cooperation in preparation for a joint sea route assessment … so that we can immediately [engage with North Korea] once sanctions are lifted,” said Hong, a former aide to various congress members from Moon’s ruling Democratic Party of Korea.
The ports study would not be the first to look at inter-Korean marine cooperation, Hong said, as the port authority had commissioned government research institutions such as the Korea Maritime Institute to carry out others.
“After the study is done – possibly next spring – we plan to seek a partner in North Korea and will propose a joint field study … We must understand each others’ needs through the joint inspection,” he said.
Nampo is North Korea’s major port city, located in the country’s west about 60km (37 miles) southwest of its capital, Pyongyang.
“[The IPA’s] plan will be to modernise unloading equipment and build additional ports … after, of course, sanctions are lifted,” Hong said, adding that development of Nampo could cost US$7 billion.
“The IPA ultimately wishes to run a Peace Cruise tour programme which links not only Incheon and Nampo but also Tianjin and Qingdao in China,” Hong said, adding that he hoped the three nations would work together on maritime developments.
Starting in April 2016, South Korea invested US$160 million in building a new international ferry terminal, and US$16.5 million for the construction of a 7,364 square metre (79,265 sq ft) cruise terminal – with berthing capacity of 225,000 tonnes – in Incheon, in anticipation of more tourists from China. The cruise terminal is expected to open next April.
China has embarked upon an aggressive unofficial campaign to stop its tourists from visiting South Korea. The number of arrivals from China halved to about 4 million last year, compared to 2016, according to the Korea Tourism Organisation.
The port authority’s Golden Harbour project – which also includes hotels, a theme park, and shopping centres – was created to lure Chinese tourists and proceeded regardless of the political disputes between Beijing and Seoul, Hong said.
“The two Koreas and China share many regional interests [such as stability and economic development] … Korea and China are partners that have worked side-by-side throughout history. I am confident that relations will normalise soon,” Hong said, adding China’s practical support, including financial contributions to both Koreas, is essential.
Last year, relations between Seoul and Pyongyang reached a low after a series of tests of nuclear weapons-capable missiles by the North. South Korea responded by deploying anti-missile defence systems provided by the United States.
“The [missile] dispute was rather a product of intensified tensions on the Korean peninsula,” Hong said. “Thus, easing of tension is the fundamental solution to the dispute, and it can be achieved by rebuilding trust via [economic] cooperation.
“The two Koreas and China must rebuild our trust with one another and walk towards the road of common prosperity … Three-way economic engagement will result in active logistics and human exchanges, and ultimately a stable and sustainable prosperity in the Yellow Sea region.”