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For Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation: A Railway Project Is Key To Laying the Groundwork for S. Korean Pres. Moon's Blueprint
Officials from the two Koreas hold a groundbreaking ceremony for an inter-Korean network of railroads and highways for the connection and modernization of inter-Korean railways along the western Gyeongui and eastern Donghae rail lines at Panmun Station in Gaeseong, North Korea, on Dec. 26, 2018. For the first time in 70 years, roads and railways connecting the two Koreas have been reconnected, laying the foundation for the Northeast Asian Railway Community. The project was stipulated in the Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace signed at the inter-Korean summit on April 27, 2018. In the third meeting held in September in Pyeongyang, both sides also agreed to hold a ceremony in 2018 to mark the launch of the cross-border rail project.
South Korea reaffirmed that it discussed holding a ground-breaking ceremony with North Korea to link cross-border roads and railways by the end of the year. On Nov. 28. 2018, South and North Korea agreed to begin a joint inspection of cross-border railways, which involves the test-operation of trains on North Korean rail tracks, according to the Ministry of Unification (MOU).
"The South and North agreed to start an 18-day joint inspection of the inter-Korean railway by moving about 2,600km along the North Korean section of the railway on November 30," said the ministry.
"The railway inspection was delayed because of the list of materials, such as fuel, that the South was planning to take across the border," he added, referring to the United Nations Command's (UNC's) decision to not approve the joint railway inspection, citing procedural problems. The UNC granted the inspection in November after closely discussing the matter with the Seoul government.
Early on November 29, a Panmunjom-bound South Korean locomotive left Seoul Station and carried six cars across the border. The train then headed to the nearby Panmun Station in the North, where the South's locomotive had been swapped with a North Korean one. The North Korean locomotive then left six cars, including a generator car and a tanker car to proceed with the joint inspection.
The joint railway inspection was the first of its kind in about a decade. In 2007, the two Koreas held a test train operation on a 412km-railway linking Gaeseung [Kaesong] to Sinuiju in the North.
Since November 30, the South and North have been conducting a joint inspection on sections of cross-border railways in North Korea, running along both the east and west coast of the Korean Peninsula.
The joint operation was divided into two parts: The first part involved a six-day inspection of the North Korean side of the Gyeongui Line (Gaeseong-Sinuiju), a city on the North's border with China. The inspection of a 400km-section of the Gyeongui Line was scheduled from November 30 to December 5.
The second part of the operation shifted to an 800km-section of the Donghae Line in the North, from the North's southeastern slopes of Mt. Geumgang [Kumgangsan] to Tumen River, which serves as the boundary between the northeastern part of North Korea and China. The inspection of the eastern railway was carried out from December 9 to 17.
After the six-day inspection, the leaders of the Koreas agreed to modernize and reconnect rail and road systems across the border at an inter-Korean Summit in Panmunjom on April 27, a move the South believes could accelerate North Korea's denucleari-zation.
A 23-member team of South Korean officials and engineers returned to Seoul on December 5 after a six-day joint study on the 400km Gyeongui Line in the western part of North Korea. A new team traveled to the North's eastern coastal city of Wonsan by bus on December 8 to inspect the 800km Donghae Line railway, which runs from Mt. Geumgang to the Tumen River.
"As a result of an inter-Korean meeting, a consensus that the groundbreaking ceremony should be held on December 26 at Panmun Station in North Korea's border town of Gaeseong was reached," a statement released by the South's MOU. It added that the South and North plan to send 100 participants each to the event.
The inter-Korean official meeting was held at the South-North Joint Liaison Office in Gaeseong to hammer out details including the venue, the date and a roster of possible participants.
The two Koreas each sent four officials to the discussion table, according to the official. The South Korean team included Kim Chang-su, deputy chief of the liaison office from South Korea; while Hwang Chung-song, a senior official at the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, the North's state agency in charge of inter-Korean affairs, was part of the North Korean delegation.
The railway project, which the leaders of the two Koreas committed to at their April 27 Summit in Panmunjom, is key to laying the groundwork for South Korean President Moon Jae-in's blueprint for inter-Korean economic cooperation. Moon pledged to create three cross-border economic belts - one connecting the west coast of the Peninsula to China, one connecting the east coast to Russia and one along the heavily fortified border.
South Korea has been eager to expand inter-Korean projects with North Korea, which it believes could encourage North Korea to accelerate denuclearization, though many of them cannot proceed due to international sanctions against the North.
With the support of the United States, South Korea received a sanctions exemption from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), allowing the South to bring fuel and other equipment into the North for a joint survey of inter-Korean railroads.
Whether the Koreas can link their railways, however, will depend on the progress of the North's denuclearization, as international sanctions against North Korea prohibit the transfer of oil and other materials as well as investment in the North.
South Korea's Unification and Transport ministers, as well as South Korean families separated by the Korean War, will attend the groundbreaking ceremony for a project to modernize and connect inter-Korean roads and railways. About 100 South Korean participants, including Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, Land Minister Kim Hyun-mee and chief of the ruling Democratic Party Lee Hae-chan, attended the event scheduled to take place 10 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2018, at Panmun Station in the border city of Gaeseung, according to the Ministry of Unification.
Six North Korean officials, including Ri Son-gwon, chairman of North Korea's stage agency in charge of inter-Korean ties, and Railway Minister Kim Yun-hyok, also participated in the hour-long ceremony, according to the ministry.
Accordingly, among the attendees are five South Korean civilians whose families have been separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and the last locomotive engineer who drove the inter-Korean train until December 2008.
The United States agreed to sanctions exemptions for the ceremony through the allies' second working-group meeting held in Seoul. A 31-member advance team comprising South Korean government officials left for North Korea to prepare for the groundbreaking ceremony. A 14-member advance team was sent to the North for a one-day trip a day earlier.
Officials from the United Nations, China, Russia and Mongolia also attended, witnessing what could be viewed as the start of an ambitious plan to connect the inter-Korean railway to the Trans-Siberian Railway - potentially connecting the Korean Peninsula to Europe.
Armida Alisjahbana, executive secretary of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Vladimir Tokarev, Russia's vice transport minister, and Mongolian Transport Minister Sodbaatar Yangug all voiced support for the railway project.
In a separate briefing, the Unification Ministry reiterated that the event was "symbolic," indirectly pointing to sanctions in place against the North, and added that it plans to further inspect roads and railways before moving to the stage of actual construction.
The groundbreaking ceremony came after the U.N. granted a sanctions exemption for the event regarding materials that were to enter the North. The United States has also expressed support for the event through a U.S.-South Korea working-level meeting held last week in Seoul.
But it continues to stress that the sanctions will remain in place unless noteworthy progress is made on stalled nuclear talks with North Korea and that steps in inter-Korean ties should be in tandem with the talks.
Seoul and Pyongyang had discussed trans-Korean rail networks since the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. Following the Summit, the South and North each held simultaneous groundbreaking ceremonies separately near the inter-Korean border in 2002, signaling the launch of construction on sections of the cross-border railways that were severed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The railway linking the South's Dorasan Station and Panmun Station in the North's border town of Gaeseong was an active route used to carry materials back and forth across the border from 2007 until border tensions escalated in late 2008.
Observers believe that the train system could be vital in helping North Korea achieve its goal of economic prosperity, with Kim's declaration earlier in the year to shift his focus entirely to the economy and away from nuclear weapons.
South Korea also sees the railway project as a key that could boost trade and tourism, as it would connect the Peninsula with international neighbors such as China and Russia.★