A South Korean train has crossed into the North to officially launch a historic joint project to reconnect railroad tracks between the two nations.
Footage of the landmark event Friday showed a red, white and blue train — displaying a banner reading “Iron Horse is now running toward the era of peace and prosperity” — depart from South Korea’s Dorasan station.
“This signals the start of co-prosperity of the North and the South by reconnecting railways,” said South Korean Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee.
He said relinking the railway will facilitate expansion of South Korea’s “economic territory” to Eurasia by land because the division of the Korean Peninsula has left his country geopolitically cut off from the continent for decades.
Reconnection of the railway systems was among the agreements signed earlier this year during a crucial meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in.
According to local press reports, the six-wagon train is carrying 28 South Koreans, including railway engineers and other workers, as well as 55 tonnes of fuel and an electricity generator.
After its arrival at North Korea’s Panmun station — the first terminal across the border — the six wagons will be linked up to a North Korean train, and the South Korean locomotive will return back home.
The South Korean rail workers and their counterparts in the North are due to stay in the train, inspecting two railway lines for a total of 18 days.
One of the lines is linking the North’s southernmost Kaesong City to Sinuiju City near the Chinese border, and the other is connecting Mount Kumgang near the inter-Korean border to Tumen River, bordering Russia in the east.
According to South Korea’s transport ministry, they will travel nearly 2,600 kilometers on railway tracks together for the project.
The railway project has faced delays over concerns it could violate the US-led UN Security Council sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.
The Security Council, however, granted an exemption for the joint project last week, but it remains unclear whether it will allow more following the conclusion of the initial assessment phase.
The UN grants sanctions exemption to South Korea for a joint railway survey with the North.
Seoul said the survey was purely intended for gathering information on the current state of the North’s rail system, insisting that actual restoration work would take place only after securing the Security Council’s consent.
The study phase also comes amid emerging differences between South Korea and the US, which has deployed 28,500 military forces in the country as part of their decades-old alliance against the North.
The two-week-long drills kick off around the South Korean port city of Pohang days before high-level talks between top US and North Korean diplomats in New York.
South Korean President Moon has long favored engagement with North and has set aside large investment and joint cross-border projects as incentives for steps towards denuclearization.
The Friday rail trip marked the first time in a decade that a train from the South entered North Korea.
From December 2007 until November 2008, freight services ran between the two Koreas to support factories in a joint economic zone at Kaesong in North Korea. The line, however, was cut in 2008 as relations deteriorated.