- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

IMJINGAK, South Korea South Korea yesterday began rebuilding a railroad line across the world's most heavily armed border, saying the new link will serve as an avenue for exchanges with isolated communist North Korea and trade with fast-growing markets in China and Russia.

When completed by next fall, the railway, and a new four-lane highway running alongside it, will link the two capitals: Seoul and Pyongyang, North Korea.

The railway and highway will become the first direct transport link between the Koreas since the Korean War and will set a new milestone in improving ties between the Cold War foes.

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung presided over the groundbreaking ceremony in Imjingak, a village just south of the Demilitarized Zone, which has separated the Koreas since the 1945 division of the peninsula and the 1950-53 Korean War.

"Today, we started reconnecting our divided fatherland," Mr. Kim said in a nationally televised speech from a platform above the groundbreaking ceremony. "For a half-century, the severed rail link has been a symbol of national division and the Cold War."

Thousands of colorful balloons were released to celebrate the occasion, and firecrackers soared into the clear autumn sky with plumes of rainbow-colored smoke.

Following June's historic summit meeting by their leaders in Pyongyang, the countries agreed last month to reconnect the major railway.

It continues to Shinuiju, a major city on the North's border with China, and was last used commercially shortly before the Korean War started in 1950.

Until now, the only link between the countries has been a winding, heavily guarded two-lane road that stops at the truce village of Panmunjom, the sole contact point between democratic South Korea and the North.

A steam locomotive whistled and rolled on a 66-foot rail line laid for yesterday's ceremony. Steering the locomotive was Han Joon-ki, 73, who drove the last train that ran on the cross-border line in late 1950, transporting military equipment for U.S. troops fighting for South Korea.

North and South Korea still have to negotiate how the railway and highway will be used, but Seoul officials expect them to be limited to cargo shipments at first.

"My hope to reunite with my family in North Korea is higher than ever," said Kim Han-keun, 70, one of millions of Koreans separated from their families during the war.

The war ended in an uneasy truce, not a peace treaty. The Korean border is the world's most heavily fortified, lined with an estimated 1 million mines and guarded by 2 million troops on both sides.

Seoul will spend $50 million to rebuild the 12-mile stretch of railway between Munsan city and the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two countries. Thousands of South Korean soldiers will be used to clear land mines inside the 2 and 1/2-mile-wide DMZ.

North Korea is expected to use soldiers to rebuild the five miles of rail line on its side of the border, between the DMZ and Bongdong, a train station near Kaesung city. Its construction costs were not known.

The war ended in an uneasy truce, not a peace treaty. The Korean border is the world's most heavily fortified, lined with an estimated 1 million mines and guarded by 2 million troops on both sides.

Yesterday, South Korea also started building the $91 million, four-lane highway that will connect major expressways already in service in both Koreas.

In another sign of reconciliation, South Korean Defense Minister Cho Sung-tae and Kim Il-chul, minister for North Korea's People's Army, will meet in Cheju Island, South Korea, on Sept. 25-26 to discuss military cooperation in reconnecting the railroad line.

President Kim said the railway and highway will boost trade between the two countries, which amounted to $330 million last year, and give South Korea a long-sought land route to China and Russia's trans-Siberian railway, through which Seoul hopes to deliver exports to Europe.

The new link will drastically reduce shipping costs for South Korean exporters, Kim said.

In a congratulatory message to President Kim, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori said he strongly expected the rail and highway reconnections to "proceed in nurturing trust in the military area and bring about an easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula."

Inter-Korea relations have thawed significantly since Mr. Kim visited Pyongyang to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The two leaders are expected to hold another summit in Seoul by next spring.

Since the summit in Pyongyang, the two sides have stopped propaganda broadcasts and reopened border liaison offices. Last week, their athletes marched together behind a unification flag during the opening ceremony at the Sydney Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

The two Koreas also allowed 200 persons to cross the border in August for temporary reunions with relatives they haven't seen in half a century. Two more such reunions are planned before year's end.

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