In Historic Test, Trains Cross Korean DMZ

By Joohee Cho
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 18, 2007

MUNSAN, South Korea, May 17 -- For the first time in more than half a century, trains crossed Korea's tense demilitarized zone on Thursday, carrying 150 people each from the North and South and new hopes for peaceful reunification of the divided country.

An elaborately staged test run by two five-car trains along newly refurbished track was covered live by all three major South Korean television networks. Along for the ride were senior government figures from both sides and handpicked citizens, 50 from the North and 100 from the South.

On the western part of the peninsula, where 17 miles of track have been restored, a train departed from the southern town of Munsan amid a celebration with fireworks, bands, balloons and hundreds of people waving the white-and-blue banner known as the "peninsula" or "unification" flag, which is often used at joint sports events to represent a united Korea.

After snaking through rocky hills, the train crossed into North Korea and headed toward the city of Kaesong. There it was greeted by North Korean students chanting "Fatherland's unification."

On a 16-mile track on the peninsula's eastern side, the second train left from the North's Diamond Mountain resort. As South Korean soldiers swung open gates topped with barbed wire, it made its way to festivities in the town of Jejin.

"This is not just a test run . . . it reconnects our nation's severed bloodline. The heart of the Korean Peninsula is beating again," said Lee Jae Jung, South Korea's unification minister, at a ceremony at Munsan station before the train pulled away.

His North Korean counterpart, Kwon Ho Ung, said, "The tragedy of our land's disconnection and national separation was not by us, but enforced by foreign powers," a reference to the United States. "Our countrymen will be a bigger one united . . . and should not be derailed from the track or hesitate."

Travel between North and South is rare but generally takes place by road or sea. The last train to cross what is now the DMZ made the trip in 1951, during the three-year Korean War.

South Korea had long sought to conduct Thursday's rail test, claiming that it would help open doors to the isolated communist country. The $600 million project was paid for by the South and includes new train stations in the North. Since the project began in 2000, 73,000 workers from both sides have laid tracks while special military teams de-mined the two corridors across the world's most heavily fortified border.

The tracks were finished in 2003, but the two Koreas could not agree on the test run because of unspecified military objections from the North and generally souring relations among neighboring countries as a result of the North's nuclear weapons program.

North Korea consented to the test run last month, after Seoul pledged to give it raw materials for shoes, clothes and soap. In return, the North said it would allow companies from the South to conduct mineral explorations in the North.

By day's end, both trains had recrossed the DMZ with no firm plans in place for further runs. But South Korea hopes trains will soon offer regular service along the new tracks to promote inter-Korean exchange. Every day, thousands of South Koreans go by road across the border to a joint North-South industrial complex in Kaesong and to the Diamond Mountain resort.

In the longer term, the South has grand plans for the lines. In theory, they could extend to China and Russia, connecting to the Trans-Siberian Railway and providing a cargo link to Europe.

The test run underlined South Korea's strategy of offering incentives to the North as part of six-country negotiations aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear programs. After years of frustrating, fruitless talks, the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia reached an agreement on Feb. 13 under which the North would shut down its main nuclear reactor in exchange for aid. The deal remains stalled over a financial dispute.

South Korea contends that economic favors through inter-Korean links would help implement the agreement. "We feel this test run would provide momentum and resolve the overall situation," Lee, the reunification minister, told reporters Wednesday.

But some analysts say the South's approach will reduce the North's willingness to cooperate. "We're going too fast. If you shower them with rice and raw materials in aid, they would have no reason to comply with the international community in time. We're just buying them negotiating leverage," said Jin Young Chung, professor of international studies at Kyung Hee University.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company