North and South Korea began regular freight train service across their heavily armed border Tuesday for the first time in more than a half century, in another symbolic step in their reconciliation.
The 12-car train carried construction materials to a North Korean border station, and then returned home carrying shoes, underwear and other items produced at a South-North joint industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Kaesong.
The service is one of the tangible results of an October summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun that outlined a series of joint projects. It comes months after the two sides conducted a one-time test run of passenger trains on two reconnected tracks on the western and eastern sides of the peninsula.
The freight train is to make a 10-mile round trip every weekday to North Korea.
It remains unclear whether regular passenger train service will start anytime soon, but one of the train’s engineers was hopeful Tuesday.
“I expect a day will come when South Koreans visit North Korean tourist attractions freely by train,” Shin Jang-chul, whose parents are from what is now North Korea, told reporters before departing.
‘Economic benefits are countless’
South Korea hopes the inter-Korean railway will ultimately be linked through North Korea to Russia’s Trans-Siberian railroad and allow an overland route connecting the peninsula to Europe — significantly cutting delivery times for freight that now requires sea transport.
“Though we start with a cargo train, it will lead to a passenger train service and will soon be linked to the continental trains,” Lee Chul, president of Korea Railroad, told reporters. “The economic benefits are countless.”
He said he also hoped South and North Koreans could travel together via rail to Beijing to cheer at next year’s Olympics.
The freight service is likely to give a further boost to the sprawling Kaesong complex, which marries South Korean technology and management expertise with North Korea’s cheap labor.
Currently, 64 South Korean companies operate factories there, employing about 21,600 North Korean workers and producing a range of goods including watches, clothing and shoes.
The freight service “will further speed up inter-Korean economic projects ... (and) contribute to the establishment of a joint economic community,” South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung said in a ceremony at the North Korean station, according to pool reports.
South Korea seeks to build an economic community with its impoverished communist neighbor as a way to reduce military tension and narrow the huge wealth gap between the countries before achieving eventual reunification.
Severed in 1950
The rail lines between the Koreas were severed shortly after the outbreak of the 1950 Korean War. The conflict ended in a 1953 cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty, leaving the sides technically at war.
Already, dozens of cars, trucks and buses regularly cross the border between the two Koreas via reconnected roads to the Kaesong complex and to a tourism resort at North Korea’s Diamond Mountain.
The transport links between North and South Korea were reconnected after the first-ever summit between the leaders of the divided peninsula in 2000.