Thursday, May 17, 2007

Online exclusive

MUNSAN, South Korea — In defiance of nuclear tensions, trains today crossed the inter-Korean border for the first time since the Korean War on a deeply symbolic test run of re-connected lines. Regular services, however, are not yet on the horizon.

On a brilliant spring day, a train from the south crossed into North Korea on the west coast line, heading to the city of Kaesong in the North. Simultaneously, on the east coast, a North Korean train headed south for Chejin Station. The two trains both returned after round trips of approximately 30 miles each.

“This re-connects the severed bloodline of our people,” said Lee Jae-joung, South Korea’s Unification Minister, before boarding the northbound train. “The heart of the Korean Peninsula is beating again.”

The northbound train, its engine decked in flowers, nosed through Dorasan International Station — named after the nearby Observation Post Dora in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) — at midday. Saluting railway officials and a squad of polished but unarmed South Korean soldiers were joined on the spotless platform by scores of reporters.

“This is my happiest day,” said the engineer from the cab as he carried 100 South Korean officials, 50 North Korean officials and South Korean reporters into the DMZ.

Earlier, tight-lipped North Korean officials — all men — had arrived on unmarked buses from the North to Munsan Station, just south of Dorasan, from where the northbound train departed. They were greeted by a cheering crowd, a traditional musical ensemble in yellow silks that usually welcomes foreign dignitaries to the presidential residence, and a female marching band playing North Korean folk tunes.

“We should not waver or be derailed from the track of national sovereignty and inter-Korean collaboration,” said North Korean Chief Cabinet Member Kwon Ho-ung, at the ceremony.

Earlier, there had been scuffles between demonstrators, whose families have been abducted to North Korea, and riot police dressed in jeans and T-shirts.

“This is deceitful,” shouted Choi Dae-jim of the right-wing group Freedombuilders, from behind a wall of police. “The prerequisites to this should be a solution to the Norths nuclear weapons and North Korean human rights.”

There already are road links through the Demilitarized Zone. In the North, these lead to the industrial enclave near Kaesong in the east and the Mount Kumgang tourism enclave in the west. Traffic is one-way: South to North.

Inter-Korean rail services would grant tremendous economic benefits to the South, especially as regards exports to the European Union, via the Trans-Siberian Express. Shipping times to Europe would be cut by two-thirds.

However, this does not look likely anytime soon. Following an agreement at the inter-Korean summit in 2000, lines were re-connected in 2003. A test run was scheduled last year, but North Koreas military refused security guarantees, scotching the run. Only after South Korea offered the North $80 million in industrial aid this year was permission for todays test run granted. Local media reported that the re-connection of the lines already has cost Seoul $500 million.

“This test run resolves military and technical issues and will be the basis of normal runs,” said a Unification Ministry spokesman. “There is no schedule for normal services: The South Korean government will make this an agenda during North-South dialogue, though timing is uncertain.”

Even if the two states eventually agree to services, the Norths lines are dilapidated. According to Kim Sung-ho of the Korea Transport Institute, some parts of the Norths network use a different gauge, infrastructure needs rebuilding, there is a shortage of electricity, safety standards are insufficient, and single-track operations create inefficiencies. The institute estimates upgrades would cost more than $2 billion.

Meanwhile, Seoul needs North Korean policy successes, experts said.

“We are in an election year, and the ruling party is looking for signs that the sunshine policy has worked,” said Brian Myers, a North Korean expert at the Souths Dongseo University. “It is symbolic, as Seoul needs to show the public that the policy is bearing some fruit.”

“The bottom line for Seoul is that North-South economic cooperation is more important than denuclearization,” said Peter Beck of the International Crisis Group in Seoul. “And expanding economic projects will remove the incentive for the North to denuclearize.”

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