North and South Korea Tuesday began a regular train service across their fortified border for the first time in over 50 years, in the latest reconciliation project between the historic enemies.
|South Koreans wave 'unification' flags as the cargo train departs for North Korea at the Dorasan station in Paju, near the demilitarized zone dividing two Koreas, 11 December 2007 (Photo: AFP)|
A locomotive pulling 10 container trucks loaded with kerbstones and raw material for shoe factories traveled north across the frontier to Panmun station near an inter-Korean industrial complex at Kaesong.
It later returned to the South carrying shoes, garments and machinery produced in the Seoul-funded complex just north of the border.
The daily freight service is the first tangible achievement of an inter-Korean summit in October, which agreed on a variety of sweeping projects to promote peace and economic engagement.
The last regular rail operation was in 1951, during the 1950-53 Korean War.
The hope is that one day the railway will also carry passengers and act as the first link with Europe via the trans-China and trans-Siberian networks.
"We are relinking the last vein that has been severed for 56 years," said Lee Chul, president of state operator Korail.
"It looks like a humble start but this is the first step to Europe through the trans-Siberian railway," he told reporters at Dorasan station, last stop on the South Korean side before the frontier.
Trains made one-off cross-border test runs in May in what the South hailed as a highly symbolic event. But delays in obtaining safety guarantees from the North's military had delayed the launch of a regular service.
Trains are restricted to a maximum speed of 60 kilometers (37 miles) per hour when traversing the closely guarded frontier.
"This is a dream come true," said driver Shin Jang-Chul, who also drove one of the trains on the test runs.
"I'm happy to drive this train to the North where both my parents were born. I hope not only cargos but tourists as well will use this train to go back and forth."
During the summit South Korea offered help to restore the North's dilapidated railway system up to the border with China.
Apart from its symbolic value in linking two nations still technically at war, Seoul hopes the train will eventually slash transport costs for the factories at Kaesong.
Some 20,000 North Koreans earning about 60 dollars a month produce clothes, utensils, watches and other goods for South Korean firms. Seoul sees Kaesong as a model for projects to narrow the huge wealth gap in preparation for eventual reunification.
At present hundreds of vehicles cross the border daily to move raw materials north and to transport finished products back to the south.
Unification Minister Lee Jae-Joung traveled to Panmun for a joint ceremony also involving his northern counterpart Kwon Ho-Ung. Some 170 others from the two sides took part part, the unification ministry said.