An artistic rendition of an undersea tunnel connecting Korea and Japan
By Do Je-hae
Discussions for a Korea-Japan undersea tunnel have been gaining momentum among researchers, politicians and entrepreneurs, but the project faces many hurdles before it can become a reality.
If realized, the two countries would be linked by a 200-kilometer undersea tunnel from Busan to the Japanese Island of Kyushu.
A high-speed rail would connect the two countries in 50 minutes. The Korea Japan Tunnel Project Association in Busan and the Japan-Korea Tunnel Research Institute, a non-profit foundation in Tokyo, have been leading the research.
Studies on the tunnel has been initiated mostly by the private sector, but government support is likely to gain pace, particularly in light of the role it is expected to play in accelerating travel and business exchanges.
Busan Mayor Hur Nam-sik has already launched a related task force.
The tunnel would also facilitate bilateral trade, which rose from approximately $40 billion in 1999 to more than $89 billion in 2008. About 20,000 people traveled daily between the countries in 2009.
"The tunnel will stimulate business, ease tension and promote political stability in East Asia. It will also have a positive impact on the reunification of the Korean Peninsula," Prof. Shin Jang-cheol of Soongshil University in Seoul said.
He cited the expansion of the Eurasia transportation link and the possibility of facilitating the Korea-Japan FTA as other reasons for pursuing the project on a government level.
The project would be profitable, according to a study from Prof. Park Jin-hee, a professor at Korea Maritime University. It currently costs $665 to ship a container (20 cubic feet) from Osaka to Busan. The price would drop to $472 through the undersea transportation system.
The project will also promote balanced regional development. Some see it as a catalyst for the breaking down of psychological barriers and hostility stemming from centuries of conflict between the two neighbors.
However, opponents said engineering and cost concerns are major hindrances to the project. Construction costs are projected at around 60 trillion won to 100 trillion won and the project would take seven to 10 years to construct.
If completed today, it would be the longest undersea tunnel in the world.
The 50.5 kilometer Channel Tunnel between the United Kingdom and France, which has served as an inspiration for the project, took six years to complete.
Opponents have also said the Korea-Japan project is untimely due to lingering anti-Japanese sentiment. Some have warned that Korea would gain little from the tunnel, while it would ultimately "end up helping Japan advance into the Eurasian continent."
In addition, there are still many unsettled disputes among local governments in the southern region of the country. However, the Korean government has become more positive on the project.
A top Cheong Wa Dae official has said that the government will launch a feasibility study.
The idea was first conceived during the Japanese occupation at the turn of the 20th century. But more concrete planning didn't occur until 2003, when former President Roh Moo-hyun mentioned the idea.
So far, Japan has been more forward about the project than Korea.
Some Japanese officials have been promoting it as a "symbol of peace-building" since 2002, when the two nations co-hosted the FIFA World Cup. A former defense minister described the proposed tunnel as a "dream-inspiring" project.
About a year ago in Kyushu, a Japanese tunnel construction company started to study the possibility of building the undersea tunnel.
Supporters say that the time is approaching for an official accord between the two governments.
Daizo Nozawa, a former minister of justice of Japan, president of the Japan-Korea Tunnel Research Institute, and Kim Ki-chun, a former minister of justice and former vice chairman of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians Union, said that "any engineering challenges can be met with present technology.
"Far more daunting is the historic psychological barrier between the two countries. There is no better way to bring people together than to engage them in a project requiring all their efforts."
Busan and its sister city of Fukuoka have been conducting various projects to create a common economic zone.
About half of Busan residents say that the project should be conducted irrespective of past differences between the two countries, according to a survey of 600 citizens by the Korea Maritime University in 2008. Around 60 percent said that the tunnel would be beneficial to Busan's economy.