A South Korean train yesterday crossed into North Korea for the first time in a decade — packed with engineers on a mission to upgrade the North’s dilapidated rail tracks and create a linked, cross-border network.
Connecting up the railway systems was one of the agreements made earlier this year in a key meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. It marked the first time in a decade that a train from the South entered North Korea.
TV footage showed a red, white and blue train — displaying a banner reading: “Iron Horse is now running toward the era of peace and prosperity” — pull away from the South’s Dorasan Station, the nearest terminal from the western part of the inter-Korean border.
“This signals the start of coprosperity of the North and the South by reconnecting railways,” South Korean Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Kim Hyun-mee said.
The railway reconnection would help expand the country’s “economic territory” to Eurasia by land, she said, as the division of the Korean Peninsula has left South Korea geopolitically cut off from the continent for many decades.
The six-carriage train was transporting 28 South Koreans, including railway engineers and other personnel, and 55 tonnes of fuel and an electricity generator.
There was a passenger coach, a sleeping coach, an office coach and a wagon loaded with water for showers and laundry.
Upon arrival at Panmun Station — the first North Korean terminal across the border — the six carriages were to be linked up to a North Korean train and the South Korean locomotive was to return home.
The South Koreans and their counterparts are to live in the train, inspecting two railway lines for a total of 18 days: one linking the North’s southernmost city of Kaesong to Sinuiju near the Chinese border and the other connecting Mount Kumgang near the inter-Korean border to the Tumen River bordering Russia in the east.
They are to travel about 2,600km on railway tracks together, the South Korean Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said.
Before the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1948, there were two railway lines linking the North to the South — one in the west and the other in the east.
As a gesture toward reconciliation, the two Koreas reconnected the western line in 2007 and limited numbers of freight trains transported materials and goods to and from the Seoul-invested Kaesong Industrial Region in the North for about a year.
However, the line has since then been put out of service due to heightened tension over the North’s nuclear development program.
The current railway project has also faced delays over concerns it could breach UN sanctions imposed on the North over its nuclear and missile programs.
However, the UN Security Council granted an exemption for the joint study last week, although it is unclear whether others would be given as the project progresses.
The survey is purely aimed at gathering information on the current state of the North’s rail system, Seoul said, adding that actual restoration works would come only after consents from the UN.
The South Korean Ministry of Unification has earmarked about 63.4 billion won (US$56.5 million) for next year on the assumption that it would take five years to repair and improve the two railway routes in the North.
Kim Jong-un, during a summit with the Moon in April, said the North’s railway infrastructure is “embarrassingly” dilapidated, praising the South’s high-speed railway system.
The North’s railway tracks are in such disrepair that trains reportedly operate between 20kph and 45kph.
The study comes as differences emerge between Seoul and Washington, which has stationed 28,500 troops in the South as part of their decades-old alliance.
Moon has long favored engagement with the nuclear-armed North, and has dangled large investment and joint cross-border projects as incentives for steps toward denuclearization.
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