SEOUL, South Korea – Marking the start of an ambitious project to reconnect rail and road links severed since the 1950-53 Korean War, the two Koreas participated in a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday.
South Korean government officials, lawmakers and senior citizens who were separated from their families during the war traveled across the border by train, to participate in the ceremony held in the city of Kaesong on the North Korean side of the border.
The ceremony, which was also attended by officials from North Korea, China, Russia, Mongolia and the United Nations, included the signing of a wooden railroad tie.
Further, top officials from South Korea, along with North Korea’s head of the Committee for Unification, Ri Son Gwon, unveiled a new signboard that read, ‘Seoul-Pyongyang.’
In a statement at the event, the North’s Vice Railroad Minister Kim Yun Hyok called for an “unwavering determination to stand against headwinds” that could threaten the project.
He said, “The results of the rail and road project hinge on the spirit and will of our people.”
Meanwhile, the South Korean transport minister Kim Hyun-mee said that the two sides will conduct additional joint surveys and design work that could take one or two years to complete.
Sanctions causing hurdles
The ceremony on Wednesday was one of the first examples of the thaw in Korean relations, despite both the countries technically still being at war since their earlier conflict ended in a truce not a peace treaty.
The project has emerged as one of the few peace gestures agreed between the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who have held three summits so far.
The two Korean leaders are trying to enhance engagement at a time when talks between Pyongyang and Washington have hit a stalemate over sanctions.
However, the aspirational project, which is aimed at modernizing North Korean railways and roads and connecting them with the South, is facing troubles since actual construction cannot start while sanctions against North Korea remain in place.
In a statement before the ceremony, South Korean Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee said, “There’s a lot of things to do before we actually start construction.”
According to officials, the materials and investment needed for construction to begin are banned under UN and U.S. sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
Further, Eugene Lee, the spokeswoman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said, “We plan to hold detailed negotiations with the North to coordinate on the specific levels we want to achieve in the modernization of railways and roads and how to carry out the project.”
The ceremony in Kaesong followed the joint survey on the northern railway sections conducted by officials from both the sides.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry has stated that the country’s government plans to conduct further surveys on North Korean railways and roads before drawing up a detailed blueprint for the project.
The ministry said in a statement, “Actual construction will be pursued in accordance with progress in the North’s denuclearization and the state of sanctions against the North.”
However, some analysts are skeptical about the project.
Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute of studies in South Korea said, “Since there is no way North Korea could do this alone, they may have their own expectations on South Korea [paying for the reconstruction of the railroads]. But that does no way mean they are willing to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange.”
Meanwhile, Park Hyung-joong, head researcher of North Korea policy department at Korea Institute of National Unification explained, “South Korea is in a different position. Whereas the United States chooses to slap sanctions on North Korea for complete denuclearization, South Korea’s strategy is to gradually push for denuclearization by offering multiple carrots for motivation while keeping good relations with the North.”