SEOUL — North and South Korea held a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday for an ambitious project to link their railway and road networks, but until sanctions are lifted the plans appear unlikely to progress much further.
Officials from both Koreas signed a wooden railroad tie, unveiled a new signboard and watched a ceremonial linking of tracks between North and South.
South Korean Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee said the rail link would bridge the physical and psychological distance between the two Koreas and become “a vein of mutual prosperity across Northeast Asia.”
But an opposition leader in South Korea who did not attend the ceremony called it a “publicity stunt” staged by President Moon Jae-in to salvage his falling popularity.
“His peace initiatives are speeding way ahead of the pace of denuclearization,” Na Kyung-won of the Liberty Korea Party told a party meeting early Wednesday.
Moon insists that his outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is the only way to build trust and persuade him to surrender his nuclear weapons. Skeptics argue that Kim is pocketing whatever concessions he is offered without intending to fully disarm.
Either way, regular trains will not run between North and South Korea until United Nations sanctions are eased. Indeed, Seoul needed a U.N. exemption just to hold Wednesday’s ceremony, since it involved transporting vehicles and goods across the border.
There are other obstacles, too, not least the extremely poor state of North Korea’s rail network and the massive investment that would be required to bring it up to standard. South Korean officials completed an initial survey of the main rail routes in the North this month, but further surveys of the rail and road networks are planned before a detailed blueprint for the project is drawn up.
Still, there is no shortage of enthusiasm from Moon’s government, which talks ambitiously of an East Asian Railway Community as a first step toward European Union-style regional integration.
“As Northeast Asia’s logistics hub, the Korean Peninsula will certainly attract more attention from companies around the world,” South Korean Transport Minister Kim said. “The expenses and efforts that went into hostility and confrontation will be used for mutual prosperity and peace.”
North Korean Vice Railway Minister Kim Yun Hyok said the people of the two Koreas needed to “join forces” and work together, stressing the term “uriminzokkiri,” or “between our people.”
That is a slogan the North often evokes to reject interference by foreign countries, primarily the United States.
“The motivating power for joint work on inter-Korean railway lies within our people,” he said, adding that they should “not be wary of other entities,” in apparent reference to foreign countries.
Qiu Guohong, China’s ambassador to South Korea, said he looked forward to taking a train from Seoul to Beijing via Pyongyang. Russian officials also attended the ceremony, as did Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, executive secretary of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
Similar groundbreaking ceremonies were held in 2000 and 2002 but failed to bring about lasting progress. Freight trains did run regularly across the border from late 2007 until 2008 to supply the joint Kaesong Industrial complex, but the service was suspended as relations between the two Koreas deteriorated following the election of conservative President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul and North Korean missile tests.
Denyer reported from Tokyo.