First air route planned between two Koreas

Joong Ang Daily
Ser Myo-ja and Kim Han-byul

Thank you for flying, we’ll be landing in North Korea soon.

That announcement could be heard on a regular basis as the inter-Korean summit agreement laid out the groundwork for the first regular air route between North and South Korea.

Passengers will be allowed to fly from Seoul to an airport on Mount Paektu, on the North Korea-China border, according to the deal.

President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il said the new air route is intended to boost inter-Korean tourism to the mountain. In 2005, Kim promised such a program to Hyundai Asan Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun during her visit. With cooperation from the Korea National Tourism Organization, Hyundai Group’s North Korea business arm began preparing for it, although nothing substantial now exists.

Standing 2,744 meters (9,002 feet), Mount Paektu has been worshiped by Koreans throughout history as the place of their ancestral origin, according to the foundation legend.

“The air route will be the starting point for new aviation cooperation between the two Koreas,” said Ahn Byung-min, a North Korea expert at the Korea Transport Institute. “The runway of Samjiyon Airport in the mountain has been repaired a bit, but other facilities, including the terminal, need more work.”

Since Kim’s promise to Hyun, the South has provided material to repair the military airport, located 1,300 meters above sea level.

Hyundai Asan welcomed the agreement yesterday, saying it has already researched various tour packages and promotional strategies. The company said it will consult with the government to expedite the beginning of the tour.

Tourism industry sources said tourists take no trips in the winter. So if everything somehow came together and the airport was fully upgraded, the earliest the trip could be offered is next spring.

Yun Chi-sul, owner of the travel agency Mount, said, “May is still wintertime on Mount Paektu. Some trips have been canceled even in early June.” He has sold tour packages to the North Korean mountain since 1998 by using routes from China.

South Korea’s two major airlines, Korean Air and Asiana, also welcomed the news, expecting increased demand. About 100,000 South Koreans visit the mountain via China each year by using air and car routes to the mountain. Direct air travel is expected to cut the travel time to about an hour.

The Ministry of Construction and Transportation said more detailed agreements need to be worked out between the two Koreas for the flights to actually be operated. Whether the North will allow a plane to fly above its inland areas or force it to detour above the Yellow Sea is still unclear.

Roh and Kim also agreed yesterday to send inter-Korean cheer teams to the 2008 Beijing Olympics via the Gyeongui Line, which links Seoul and Shinuiju in the North. It will be the first non-ceremonial use of the restored inter-Korean railroad, the leaders said.

“We will have to wait and see how far the railroad can be used for the travel,” said Ahn, of the Korea Transport Institute. “The North probably will feel a burden in allowing a civilian train from Seoul to run through the entire country.” The train trip from Seoul to Beijing will be 1,614 kilometers (1,002 miles).

The 518.5-kilometer-long Gyeongui Line, completed in 1906, was severed during the Korean War. The two Koreas agreed to restore the railroad in 2000 at the ministerial talks, and the South has spent 545.4 billion won ($588.7 million) for railroad construction, including 180.9 billion won worth of material and equipment sent to the North. After several setbacks, the two Koreas tested the restored railroad on May 17 of this year.


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