First Train in 56 Years Crosses Border

Korea Times
Jung Sung-ki

The first regular freight service for over half a century began Tuesday operating across the heavily fortified border between South and North Korea.

The daily freight service is the first tangible result of an inter-Korean summit in October between President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The two leaders agreed on a package of cross-border economic cooperation projects including the train operation.

The last regular rail operation was in 1951, a year after the three-year Korean War broke out.

The freight service, agreed upon at the inter-Korean prime ministers’ talks last month, will connect South Korea with the joint industrial complex in Gaeseong, in the North.

Earlier this month, the militaries of both Koreas signed a written security guarantee for the cross-border service at working-level talks in the truce village of Panmunjeom, clearing a major hurdle for the agreement.

The new service is expected to slash the cost of transporting products to and from the business complex, just north of the border, considered a major achievement of Seoul’s “sunshine” policy of engaging the North over the past decade.

Several South Korean firms are operating in the economic zone, dubbed a testing ground for mixing South Korean capitalism and technology with North Korea’s cheap labor.

Previously, trucks moved raw materials and finished goods back and forth across the border.

South Korean officials hope the cargo train service will lay the groundwork for a regular train service for passengers and the railway will be linked through North Korea to the Trans-China and Trans-Siberian railroads.

A 12-car train carrying curbstones and other construction materials left left South Korea’s Dorasan Station at 8:20 a.m. and arrived at North Korea’s Panmun Station 20 minutes later. A joint ceremony was held at the North Korean station around 11 a.m. with the attendance of some 180 officials from both Koreas.

The train returned to the South later in the day with goods including shoes, clothes and watches made at the industrial complex.

“We are reconnecting the last vein that has been severed for 56 years,” Lee Chul, president of the Korea Railroad, told reporters at Dorasan Station. “This looks like a humble start, but I hope this link will serve as a stepping stone for the inter-Korean railways to be connected to Europe through the Trans-Siberian railway.”

Lee also expressed hope that South and North Koreans could travel together vial rail to Beijing to cheer for next year’s Summer Olympics.

Trains will run daily on weekdays from Dorasan Station in Munsan to Panmun, carrying up to 10,000 tons of cargo on each run. The train service begins at 9 a.m. and returns from the North Korean station at 2 p.m. Trains are restricted to a maximum speed of 60 kilometers per hour when traversing the closely guarded frontier.

The original agreement was to connect a 25 kilometer section of track from Munsan to Bondgong in the North, next to the industrial complex, but the plan was modified because of the lack of loading facilities at Bongdong Station, according to Unification Ministry officials.

In May, two trains crossed the border on two reconnected tracks on the western and eastern sides of the peninsula in a one-off test run.

The two Koreas are technically still at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.


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