A South Korean train crossed into the North Friday to begin the first joint railway inspection in a decade, the latest sign of improving ties between the rival nations despite slow progress in nuclear talks.
Seven railcars carrying dozens of South Korean officials and experts rolled out of Dorasan Station just after 9 a.m. and crossed the Military Demarcation Line, which has separated the peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War, according to the Unification Ministry.
The train is expected to link up with a North Korean locomotive after arriving at Panmun Station, near the border town of Kaesong, the first stop on an 18-day journey that will cover some 745 miles of tracks.
The survey was made possible after the United Nations Security Council granted the necessary exemption to sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. Further steps in the South’s ambitious plan to reconnect its railways with the North will require further exemptions, officials have said.
In addition to passengers, the trains are carrying fuel, generators and other equipment, according to the ministry.
“South and North Korea are going to become prosperous together through our railroads, which will be connected in one line in the future,” Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said during a ceremony at Dorasan Station, according to a pool report.
“Trains coming and going on the Korean Peninsula are going to convey peace and prosperity to Northeast Asia and the world,” he added.
North and South Korea have moved rapidly to improve relations as diplomatic efforts on ridding the North of its nuclear weapons gained momentum this year.
However, talks between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled, prompting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to warn Seoul against moving too fast with the rapprochement without significant progress on the nuclear front.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to “adopt practical steps toward the connection and modernization of the railways and roads” in the two transportation corridors during their first summit on April 27.
Moon has dangled the project as part of economic incentives for the North to abandon its nuclear program and join the international fold. South Korea also stands to gain as railway connections would provide a possible new land routes to China, opening valuable trade opportunities.
Officials will start with a roughly 250-mile section of railway running from the cities of Kaesong to Sinuiju on the western Gyeongui Line.
They will then survey about 500 miles of tracks between Mount Kumgang and Duman River on the eastern Donghae Line before ending the journey back in Kaesong on Dec. 17.
It will be the first such field survey on the western section since 2007 and the first-ever on the eastern section since the division of the peninsula after World War II, the ministry has said.
Moon’s administration has stressed that actual construction to modernize North Korea’s railway will depend on “progress in North Korea’s denuclearization.” But the unification minister said a groundbreaking ceremony would be held by the end of the year.
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