- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

In May, Europe will mark the 15th anniversary of the opening of the Channel Tunnel connecting Britain and France. Once derided as both impossible to build and financially impractical, the tunnel is now an important asset to the overall European transportation infrastructure and has greatly facilitated integration of the region.

Technical and engineering issues were only part of the challenges faced when the Channel Tunnel was being planned. Concerns over possible implications for national security and cultural identity, and doubts over the real benefits of closer relations between Britain and France, also were major hindrances.

Fifteen years later, British media estimate nearly 300,000 French citizens live in London. An entire industry has arisen to serve Britons looking to buy property in France, Italy and Spain.

Discount airlines are partly responsible for the increased travel between Britain and the Continent, but without the Channel Tunnel breaking down a key psychological barrier, it is doubtful the airlines would have had such success.

The tunnel clearly has played a major role in redefining relations between Britain and France as well as in the regional economy. It also has been instrumental in redirecting how people from different countries and cultures view one another. It has brought about engineering and technical advances.

Today, another region of the world would benefit greatly from such a tunnel. Korea and Japan are two historic rivals whose relationship is becoming increasingly important not only for Northeast Asia but also for the United States, which has a vested interest in the region's stability. As in the case of the Channel Tunnel, such a tunnel, to link the Japanese island of Kyushu with the Korean Peninsula, possibly near the port of Busan, faces not only technical issues but mistrust between the two countries - the result of centuries of conflict and animosity.

Private organizations in both countries have spent several million dollars and considerable time on studies they expect will lay the groundwork for such a tunnel. As now conceived, the fixed link between Japan and Korea would be about 200 miles long, depending on the route selected. However, experts expect two Japanese islands, already significant destinations for tourists from both countries, would serve as steppingstones, reducing the underwater portions of the link to about 100 miles.

In February 2008, a group of Japanese parliamentarians representing various political parties held a joint news conference and declared their support for the project. A former defense minister described the proposed tunnel as a “dream-inspiring” project that should be envisioned and promoted as a “symbol of peace-building.”

Interest is also growing among Koreans. The mayor of Busan, the large port city on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, has publicly expressed his support. In recent years, travel and other exchanges between the two countries have increased dramatically, boding well for the success of a tunnel.

Experts are convinced any engineering challenges can be met with present technology. Far more daunting is the historic psychological barrier between the two countries. Ironically, the project itself may provide the best catalyst for breaking down this barrier. There is no better way to bring people together than to engage them in a project requiring all their efforts.

For the project to proceed, private discussions and expressions of support must move to the next level of formal and official discussions between both countries' governments. Eventually, the two countries need to conclude a diplomatic accord, similar to the Treaty of Canterbury signed by Britain and France in 1986, which would outline the conditions under which the tunnel project would proceed.

The global importance of this tunnel project cannot be overemphasized. It would open a transportation system from Japan to Korea and then through North Korea to join China's vast transportation network, bringing together an economic community of the three most important countries in Northeast Asia.

The United States has a vested interest in the stability and security of this region as the world enters what some have called the “Pan-Pacific age.” The economic implications are also formidable, as the United States, as a trading partner of all three countries, would have access to the largest market in the world. Having regional allies that are prosperous and closely linked with each other may well lessen the security burden on the United States.

The United States may not be in a position to mediate between Japan and Korea on the details of such a project. However, expressions of interest and support from Washington could facilitate matters. With the critical issues of stability, security and economic expansion at stake, U.S. policymakers should begin to focus on what may well become the tie that binds Northeast Asia together.

Daizo Nozawa, a former minister of justice of Japan, is president of the Japan-Korea Tunnel Research Institute. Kim Ki Chun is a former minister of justice and three-term parliamentarian of the Republic of Korea who also was vice chairman of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians Union. Both men are actively involved in efforts to build a tunnel between their two countries.

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