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Archive for Monday, September 18, 2000

Korean reunification on track

South Korea breaks ground on cross-border railway, expressway

September 18, 2000

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— In the latest sign of improving relations between North and South Korea, workers today began rebuilding a railway line across the world's most heavily armed border to connect the two Korean capitals for the first time in more than 50 years.

South Korea's president, Kim Dae-jung, presided over the groundbreaking ceremony in Imjingak, a village just south of the Demilitarized Zone, which has separated the two Koreas since the 1945 division of the peninsula.

"Today we started reconnecting our divided fatherland," Kim said in a nationally televised speech. "For a half-century, the severed rail link has been a symbol of national division and the Cold War."

The railway was cut off shortly before the start of the 1950-53 Korean War.

When completed by next fall, the railway and a new four-lane highway running alongside it will link the two capitals: Seoul in the South and Pyongyang in the North. The railway and highway will become the first direct transport link between the two Koreas since the Korean War.

North and South Korea still have to negotiate how the railway and highway will be used, but Seoul officials expect them to be limited to cargo shipments at first.

The link through the DMZ the world's most fortified border, with some 1 million mines sown within it and 2 million troops deployed on both sides is the latest move to ease relations since the first-ever summit between the leaders of North and South. The two sides agreed last month to reconnect the railway.

For decades, the sole point of contact between South Korea and the reclusive communist North has been a winding, blocked and heavily guarded two-lane road at the truce village of Panmunjom.

Seoul will spend $50 million to rebuild the 12-mile stretch of railway between Munsan city and the DMZ. Thousands of soldiers will be used to clear land mines inside the 2 1/2-mile-wide DMZ where the link passes. North Korea is expected to use soldiers to rebuild the 5 miles of rail line on its side of the border, between the DMZ and Bongdong, a train station near Kaesung city.

Beyond Pyongyang, the rail line continues on to Shinuiju, a city on the North's border with China. The line could boost trade between the two countries and give South Korea a link to China and Russia's trans-Siberian railway, through which Seoul hopes to deliver products to Europe.

South Korea also started work today on the $91 million, four-lane highway alongside the railway that will connect major expressways already in service in both Koreas.

The Koreas' Cold War relations have thawed significantly since President Kim visited Pyongyang in June to hold a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. They are expected to hold another summit in Seoul by next spring in another important milestone in their relations.

South Korea's Defense Minister Cho Sung-tae and Kim Il Chul, minister for North Korea's People's Army, will meet in Cheju island on Sept. 25-26 to discuss military cooperation in relinking the railroad, Seoul's Ministry of Defense said Sunday. It will be the first talks between the defense chiefs since the war.

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