The peace gesture follows a joint survey into the North's railway system conducted by North and South Korea. But hopes of reconnecting the countries remain contingent upon progress in North Korea's denuclearization.
A South Korean delegation crossed the heavily guarded border into North Korea on Wednesday as the two countries held a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony for an ambitious project to modernize North Korean roads and railways.
The ceremony, which took place in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, came after the Koreas conducted a joint survey on sections of the North's railway system that they someday hope to link with the South. The project is one of the several peace gestures to which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed at a historic summit in April.
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A nine-car South Korean train carrying about 100 people — including government officials, lawmakers and aging relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean War — rolled into Kaesong's Panmun Station. The train was carrying a slogan on its side which read: "Let's open an era of peace and prosperity together — reconnection of South-North railways and roads.
They were greeted by North Koreans including Ri Son Gwon, who leads an agency which handles inter-Korean affairs. Representatives from China, Russia and Mongolia were also present, as were officials from the United Nations including Armida Alisjahbana, executive secretary of the UN's Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
No progress without denuclearization
Seoul stressed that the ceremony would not lead to actual work on reconnecting and modernizing the rail and road networks between the two countries, which are technically still at war as the Korean War ended without a peace treaty.
South Korea plans to conduct further surveys on North Korean railways and roads before drawing up a blueprint for the project. However, beyond on-site reviews and ceremonies, the two Koreas won't be able to make much progress without the removal of United States-led sanctions on the North.
Actual construction will depend on the progress of North Korea's denuclearization and the state of the sanctions, the South Korean ministry said.
"We plan to hold detailed negotiations with the North to coordinate on the specific levels we want to achieve in the modernization of railways and roads and how to carry out the project," said ministry spokeswoman Eugene Lee.
The Seoul government received UN approval to conduct their survey of northern railways in November and marked the first time a South Korean train traveled on North Korean tracks. Seoul said it also received an exemption from the UN Security council to proceed with Wednesday's ceremony as it involved South Korean transport vehicles and goods.
In December 2007, the Koreas began freight services between the South's Munsan Station in Paju and the North's Panmun Station to support a joint factory in Kaesong. South Korea used the line to transport construction materials to the north. Clothing and shoes made at the factory were sent to the south.
The stretch was shut down 11 months later due to tensions over North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The South's previous conservative government closed the Kaesong factory park in February 2016 after North Korea conducted a nuclear test and long-range rocket launch. North Korea resumed manufacturing operations in Kaesong in October 2017 in an effort to find ways around sanctions.
dv/kms (AFP, AP, dpa)