Two Koreas pledge to restore road, rail links

AFP , Wednesday 26 Dec 2018

Korean Talks
File Photo: South Korean President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their meeting at the Peace House (Photo: Reuters)

The two Koreas on Wednesday held a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony for reconnecting and repairing roads and railways across the divided peninsula, with the North calling on the South to push through joint projects despite sanctions on Pyongyang.

The connection of railways and roads is among a series of measures aimed at improving bilateral ties agreed upon in September by liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North's leader Kim Jong Un.

Seoul stressed that the ceremony would not herald the start of actual work on reconnecting and modernising links between the two Koreas -- which remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace treaty.

A South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman described it as a mere "expression of a commitment", adding that construction would depend on "progress on the North's denuclearisation and circumstances concerning sanctions".

But the North's top railway official Kim Yun Hyok reiterated Pyongyang's stance that the South stop toeing the US line on maintaining sanctions on the North until it gives up its nuclear weapons.

"If (the South) keeps looking around to check someone's mood and continues wavering, reunification would never be achieved," Kim said at the ceremony at the Panmun railway station in the North's border city of Kaesong.

Moments later, some 10 delegates from both the South and the North lined up along the railroad and pulled yellow levers to link up the railway tracks in a symbolic gesture.

- Exempt from sanctions -
There were concerns that the train and other materials brought into the North for the ceremony could breach various sanctions imposed on the isolated regime over its nuclear weapons, but the UN Security Council reportedly granted a waiver for the event.

The two sides wrapped up their joint railway and road inspections for the projects this month.

South Korea has set aside some $620,000 for the endeavour.

The ceremony comes as the United States ramps up efforts to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

Following a rapid rapprochement earlier this year that culminated in a historic summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, progress has stalled with both sides accusing each other of dragging their feet and acting in bad faith.

Critics say North Korea has made no concrete commitments and is unlikely to surrender its nuclear arsenal, while Washington's policy of maintaining pressure through isolation and sanctions has left Pyongyang seething.

- Second summit -
Trump said Monday that he was "looking forward" to his second summit with Kim, which Washington says may take place early next year.

He tweeted the statement after he was briefed by Stephen Biegun, the US special representative on North Korea, who wrapped up a three-day trip to Seoul on Saturday.

Senior transport officials from Russia, China and Mongolia attended the ceremony on Wednesday in the hope that the Korean peninsula could one day link up with Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railway and through China and Mongolia.

But experts say the North's transport infrastructure is so dilapidated that it could take decades and absorb billions of dollars to modernise and connect roads and railways across its borders.

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