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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Update at 2000 KST: This article has been amended to reflect a correction issued by the press pool covering the event.
Seoul and Pyongyang promised to push forward with rail and road connection and modernization with “determination” to achieve co-prosperity of the Korean peninsula at a groundbreaking ceremony held on Wednesday.
The brief ceremony took place between 1002 and 1025 local time at Panmun Station in Kaesong city, North Korea, and was followed by a luncheon attended by important figures from both Koreas.
In his speech, DPRK vice-minister of Railways Kim Yun Hyok said the event holds “profound significance as both can show off to the world the nation’s power and willingness to achieve unification.”
“Today’s groundbreaking ceremony will be a historical time where we can create a fresh impetus to actively promote the co-prosperity of the world in addition to achieving a balanced development of the national economy and common prosperity of Northeast Asia and Eurasia,” he said in a statement carried by the Joint Press Corps.
Kim said that the achievement of the inter-Korean road and rail project “depends on the spiritual strength and determination of the entire nation,” emphasizing independence of the Koreas from the outside.
“Our people’s burning hope for reunification cannot be realized ever as long as we mind how others think and hesitate,” he said in his remarks. “The driving force of inter-Korean rail and road cooperation exists within our nation and the speed for advancement also rests on the determination and schedule of our nation.”
To this end, South Korean Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) Kim Hyun-mee also urged the two Koreas to step forward with “bold determination” in her speech.
The ROK minister said road and rail connections between Seoul and Pyongyang would promote inter-Korean cooperation and exchanges in various fields, including culture, sports, tourism, forestry, and healthcare.
The connection, by extension, will expand the scope of North and South Korean economies to the continent, Kim Hyun-mee said, continuing that Northeast Asia could also “take the initiative in economic cooperation and co-prosperity through the East Asian Railroad Community.”
“Our companies can further enhance their competitiveness in the world market by shortening transportation times and reducing logistics expenses by using the trans-Eurasian railway network and Asian Highway Network,” the South Korean minister said. “Economic benefits will be jointly shared by the South and the North.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed in his speech marking Korea’s Liberation Day on August 15 the creation of an East Asian Railroad Community encompassing six Northeast Asian countries — the two Koreas, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia — in addition to the U.S.
The ROK government-run Korea Rail Network Authority has considered the possibility of completing the construction of a Trans-Korea Railway (TKR) and connecting it to transcontinental railroads such as the Trans-China Railway (TCR) and the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR), according to a document reviewed by NK News.
Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Qiu Guohong, deputy ministerial-level official at the Chinese National Railway Administration (NRA) Yang Hexiang, Russia’s ambassador to the ROK Andrei Kulik and to the DPRK Alexander Matsegora, and Russian Deputy Minister of Transport Vladimir Tokarev also participated in Wednesday’s events, according to the Joint Press Corps.
Mongolian Minister of Road and Transport Development Sodbaatar Yangug and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana were also present.
In his conversation with Kim Hyun-mee, Russian Deputy Minister Tokarev promised that Russia will contribute to the establishment of the East Asian Railroad Community, while the Mongolian minister also said the country will “actively participate in a cooperation project.”
Chinese ambassador Chu said the groundbreaking ceremony will serve to promote peace and the denuclearization process, expressing hopes to travel to Beijing from Seoul by train “as soon as possible” after the two Koreas complete the rail connection.
A South Korean train composed of nine cars carrying South Korean participants departed from Seoul Station at 0648 local time and crossed the military demarcation line (MDL) at 0834 local time, the MOU confirmed, adding the train arrived at Panmun Station at 0856 local time.
Around 100 participants from each side arrived by train at the venue for the groundbreaking ceremony.
North Korean senior officials including Chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) of the DPRK Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the National Economic Cooperation Committee (NECC) Pang Kang Su, vice-chairman of NECC Pak Myong Chol, and Vice-Minister of Land and Environmental Protection Pak Ho Yong attended the event.
From the South Korean side, Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon and separated family members, among others, were in attendance
Though the two Koreas agreed to push forward with rail and road connections at the ceremony, the South Korean Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said “more concrete investigations and plans” are required to start construction, explaining that the establishment of appropriate circumstances should precede initiation of the construction project.
The Ministry of Unification (MOU) reiterated on Wednesday during a regular news briefing Seoul’s stance that the groundbreaking ceremony will not automatically lead to the start of construction.
Lee Eugene, MOU deputy spokesperson, said “additional scrutiny” of the previous, incomplete investigation of railways and roads is necessary before “establishing a ground plan” and making preparation for “full-scale construction.”
The two Koreas plan to further discuss the details including “the level of modernization, route, and the method of implementing a project,” Lee told the press briefing.
Wednesday’s ceremony came after Washington gave Seoul the green light for the groundbreaking ceremony at the second meeting of the ROK-U.S. working group held in Seoul on December 21.
The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) on Wednesday confirmed to NK News that the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee granted an exemption allowing the groundbreaking ceremony to be carried out this week.
South Korea previously admitted to “differences” between Seoul and Washington over the on-site survey of railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor as well as between Seoul and Sinuiju.
The joint inspection was also previously postponed after the United Nations Command (UNC) in August did not allow South Korean trains to cross the MDL to conduct the on-site survey of sections of track between Munsan and Kaesong, citing a failure to provide the necessary 48-hours notice.
After a months-long postponement, Seoul and Pyongyang completed the on-site survey of rail on the east and west coasts of the Korean peninsula between November 30 and December 17.
A South Korean inspection team also visited a 100-kilometer section of the Donghae line between Kosong County and Wonsan city between December 21 and 23. An on-site survey of the road from Kaesong to Pyongyang on the Gyeongui line was conducted in August.
April’s Panmunjom Declaration saw the two Koreas initially come to an agreement on the adoption of “practical steps” to connect and modernize railways and roads on the east and west of the peninsula.
The measure was agreed as the first step to “actively implement the projects” agreed upon in the inter-Korean declaration signed on October 4 in 2007 with the aim to “promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation.”
In the Pyongyang Joint Declaration signed this past September, the two sides agreed to hold a groundbreaking ceremony within the year for connection of railways and roads.
But Seoul and Pyongyang intended to advance the schedule, reaching an agreement at the high-level inter-Korean talks held on October 15 to push for the groundbreaking ceremony between late November and early December.
Featured Image: Joint Press Corps
Edited by Colin Zwirko