Tunnel Dreams: Linking Korea and Japan

The Construction and Economy Research Institute of Korea, an industry mouthpiece, is again raising an age-old dream of Korea’s construction industry, a 235-km tunnel linking Korea and Japan.

The thrust of the ambition is economic. The construction industry was responsible for a full 20 percent of South Korean gross domestic product prior to the financial crisis of 2008. By last year it had shrunk to less than half of that amount. If anything, Japan depends even more on its construction industry, which in past decades formed an alliance with the country's political parties, building bridges and roads to nowhere and airports in tiny towns. Fiscal stimulus package funds routinely found their way to public works projects until 2010, when concern over the country's massive public debt led to a 20 percent cut in their subsidies.

The proposal for a Japan-Korea tunnel has been on the table since at least 1917, and by August 1942, at the height of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the South Manchurian Railway Co. planned an 8,000-km rail network stretching from Manchukuo to Singapore. Japan's defeat in World War II put that notion on a rear burner. It has been revived periodically, but Korean news media outlet the Chosunilbo reported in 2007 that construction would cost an astronomical ₩60 trillion (US$52.1 billion) to ₩100 trillion (US$88.8 billion) and take 15 to 20 years to complete. That is more than five times the cost and three times the construction time of the Channel Tunnel between the UK and France, which has the longest undersea portion in the world.

The shortest straight-line distance between Korea and Japan, using the strait islands Iki and Tsushima, is about 128 km. But the tunnel would have to be much longer. It would be designed to become a part of the Asian Land Transport Development project endorsed by the ESCAP commission, which comprises the Asian Highway, Trans-Asian Railway and a series of land transport projects intended to would create a huge system stretching all the way west across Asia to Europe and down to Singapore in the south. The tunnel would make it possible to drive from Fukuoka , Japan to the UK – the route neatly bookended by the Chunnel.

Visitors from China and Japan to South Korea are expected to surpass 10 million within a decade, tunnel enthusiasts say. The time will arrive when ports and airports are overwhelmed, they say, claiming obstacles to its construction are economic rather than technological. Work on a tunnel might begin by 2020, with hydrographic surveys to come soon, they enthuse.

Korea has many mountains and many tunnels. The Jungang Highway tunnel is 4,400 meters long. Seoul Subway Line 5 is nearly 50 km. The bullet train Gumjeong tunnel is 20 km long. Japan has serious tunneling pedigree, too. As long ago as 1880, an 868 meter tunnel –the aggregate achievement of imported technologies - was completed at Kurikoyama. The 22,000 meter Daishimizu was the world’s longest tunnel at the time of its completion in 1978.

Then there’s the Seikan tunnel. The Japanese public called for a massive coalition of engineering and investment to be brought about in order to attenuate the future risks of crossing the Tsugara Straits following a 1954 Toya-Maru ferry accident in which 1, 430 people died. Any comparative exercise using the Seikan’s numbers illuminates the formidable scale of a Korea-Japan tunnel. The 168,000 tons of steel used is enough for 42 Tokyo Towers. Its 21,540 track slabs are, if stacked, 1.2 times the height of Mount Fuji. It required 2,860 tons of explosives. A staggering 13.8 million workers were involved in the Seikan’s construction –about a quarter of the then-working population of Japan. So ponder the resources a 235 km tunnel linking Korea and Japan might involve.

There is precedent for the project, however, in the construction of the Channel Tunnel. A look at the British and French experience may be most instructive on the collaborative struggle of re-plumbing the earth between two nations. Opened in May 1994, the Channel tunnel, running between Folkestone, England, and Sangatte, France, comprises three passageways, two for rail traffic and one a service tunnel of 51 km length. Of that, 37.5 km is undersea. Despite the fact that the channel is only 34 km across at its narrowest point, 84 km of tunnels had to be constructed on the English side and 69 km on the French. Thirteen thousand engineers, technicians, and workers formed the labor force and 18 design development studies were submitted. The tunnel lining was designed so that no significant deterioration might occur over 120 years. The tunnels are 50 meters below the seabed.

As with all appropriations of land, there was an aspect of distributional contention. Practically every neighboring country on earth has, at one time or another, spilt blood over shared soil. Peoples will be wary not to lose anything. There are forceful political arguments con and pro a tunnel. You can no more re-map the geophysical space than you can the geopolitical one without implicitly threatening the national entity.

The French and the English famously fought a 100 Years War. So when the subject of a tunnel first theoretically suggested itself, history proved inhibiting. Napoleon Bonaparte was an early advocate, as well he might be, thought many Britons, who suspected a one-way Bonapartean connection for the exclusive use of military traffic. In 1883 and again in 1922 work was discontinued following military-political objections. In 1930, still contentious, The Imperial Defense Committee pronounced their opposition to the project.

Nor do tunnels come cheap. As late as 1974 work commenced, and then stopped when financial obstacles blocked the route. Eventually, Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterand managed to restart the drills when they met to sign up for the project in Canterbury in 1984. The Channel tunnel took six years to dig and came in 80 percent over its proposed budget. Since construction, it has faced several problems. Fires have disrupted operation, while illegal immigrants and asylum seekers have attempted to use it to sneak into the UK. On the upside, however, the depositing of tunnel spoil undercliff has actually increased the size of the UK by 36.4 hectares. And thousands are now able to speed between Europe and the UK daily with minimal fuss.

There might yet be a long way to go before we see any deep bows at mid point under the Ocean between Korea and Japan. One awkward problem would be road signs, with the Koreans labeling the body of water between the East Sea and the Japanese calling it the Sea of Japan.

But the fact of it one day being practically possible to eschew sea and air on a trip from Fukuoka to John O’Groats would be a compellingly literal driving force. And think of all the money raised for charity by those countless ‘Fukuoka to John O’Groats on a Bike’ sponsored rides.