Korea's economy relies heavily on exports, and therefore reducing the cost of those exports is paramount to Korea's continued economic health. Especially now, when demand for exports has dropped so drastically, the country must find a solution to ship existing exports out as cheaply as possible. Luckily enough, Dr. Kim Hak-su has been spending the better part of the past decade doing what he could in the UN to make sure cheaper goods can be shipped throughout Asia. “A lot of the cargo shipped on trains through Asia now is Samsung or LG shipments,” said Dr. Kim. “Shipped by water from Busan to Vladivostok, and there they use TSR, the Trans-Siberian Railway, going to Moscow and eventually to Helsinki.”
Student Explanatory Lecture
On March 18, at Sogang University, a room full of graduate-level International Studies students waited at a low hum for a lecture by Dr. Kim Hak-su, chairman of the Asia Economic Community Foundation and former executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) from 2000 to 2007.
A distinguished elderly gentleman showed up with a strip of gray in his otherwise black hair, and was officially introduced by a university official as Dr. Kim Hak-su, who then began his lecture titled Towards Economic Integration in Asia and the Pacific: Current Status, Challenges, and Implications to Northeast Asia. He outlined in a light and often humorous tone his efforts to economically integrate Asia to be a more tightly connected area, by trying to create one highway system.
It may not be something that people think about often, but it is very essential. Asia does not currently have one highway that connects every country together. Whereas European countries are all thoroughly webbed together with a large number of roads and rail networks, and US states have one of the best highway systems in the world linking them together, Asia simply does not. It is a thorny problem as explained by Dr. Kim, with so many countries sitting side by side, and so many mountains, rivers, jungles and deserts between them all, that simply trying to create an Asian Highway system with 87 routes along 141,000 km was a six year endeavor. However, he did it.
One Long, Tangled Concrete Thread
Dr. Kim Hak-su pointed it all out by map. For example, 20,557 kilometer Asian Highway Route #1 now starts in Tokyo, Japan, and travels down to Fukuoka. There it connects with Busan by ferry. After that, it goes up to Seoul, and then Pyongyang, and over to Beijing. The road crosses China by going to Shenzhen and then dips down to Guangzhou, before turning west again to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. From there it goes to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Bangkok Thailand, Yangon in Myanmar, Dhaka in Bangladesh, over to New Delhi India, Lahore and Islamabad in Pakistan, Kabul in Afghanistan, Teheran in Iran, and finally ends up in Istanbul Turkey. Most of the road is two lanes, with only 3% of the route being one-lane roads, 1% being unpaved, and 0.1%, or 21 kilometers, currently unconnected.
In an interview after the lecture, Dr. Kim said that one of the problems that governments had with the road was the free movement of people. Asia has been worried about SARS, and Avian Flu, and even the spread of HIV. “It was mostly a health issue and road safety issue,” Dr. Kim said. “Asian road accidents are the highest in the world. One estimation was that about a quarter million people die of road accidents in Asia every year. So if it's highly open, and some roads go left while some go right, then road safety is another issue.”
Another Steel WebThe other initiative that UN ESCAP worked on during Dr. Kim's time there was the 81,000 km long Trans-Asian Railway. In integrating all the railways of Asia together, they faced several challenges. One was the five different gauges of rails that exist throughout Asia. Dr. Kim pointed out that they generally followed the different colonial powers' spheres of influence. Wide gauge railways ran through Russia and central Asia, at 1.520 meters. Standard gauge railways, at 1.435 meters, exist in Korea and China, and on the extreme other end of Asia in Iran and Turkey. Narrow gauge railways, at 1 meter exactly, run through most of Southeast Asia including Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Broad gauge, larger than even Russia's TSR at 1.676m, is used in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Strangely enough, Indonesia is unique in having a railway where the rails are 1.067 meters apart. Because of the many differing gauges, the idea of one train travelling the entire length of Asia is almost too difficult to complete, for anyone. However, the countries involved in the Trans-Asian Railway have developed a system of containerization and transshipment, which means that standard shipping containers are taken off of one train by cranes which then lay them onto another train at specific border transfer areas.
Dr. Kim Hak-su stressed the importance of a trans-Asian shipping railway. He said that a train shipment could go from Busan, to Pyongyang, to Beijing, to Ulaanbaatar, to Moscow, and then to Helsinki in just 15 days. Currently getting goods to Europe from Korea takes 25 days by ship, and those ships must pass pirate-infested Somalian waters. Also, railway shipments are cheaper than ships. A faster, cheaper, way to send goods from Korea to Europe is something that everybody wants.
Dr. Kim ended his lecture by pointing out that there was already a large amount of local government and private sector cooperation between Asian countries because of these increasingly closer transportation ties, and that benefitted every country in Asia. He proposed that the next step would be to create an all-inclusive Asia Economic Community (AEC) that would increase this informal, private sector cooperation and build up the economies of all countries in Asia.