The U.S. and South Korea’s top North Korea hands on Friday agreed that a planned groundbreaking ceremony for rail and road cooperation and modernization between the two Koreas will go ahead.
The news followed a meeting between U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun and the ROK’s Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Lee Do-hoon in Seoul.
“The groundbreaking ceremony for railway connections is expected to be carried out as planned as a result of today’s working group meeting,” Lee told reporters following the meeting.
The move sees the U.S. give its blessing to what will be a largely symbolic ceremony, set to take place in Kaesong city on December 26.
Last week the two Koreas agreed to push ahead with the event, which is expected to feature around 100 participants from each side.
The two Koreas originally agreed in the Pyongyang Joint Declaration signed this September to hold the groundbreaking ceremony within the year.
But the project has been marred with controversy and delays, largely due to reported fears that the U.S. may consider attempts to push ahead with joint surveys of road and rail as a violation of international sanctions.
Those fears appeared to have been allayed last month, however, with Seoul reporting that the U.S. had given “strong support” for a delayed joint survey of rail lines in the North.
Seoul and Pyongyang late last month then kicked off a 16-day on-site survey of sections of rail on the east and west coasts of the northern part of the Korean peninsula.
With a preliminary inspection of lines of road having taken place in August, Friday is also set to see a group of South Korean officials cross into the DPRK to conduct what will be a markedly scaled-down inspection of the 100 kilometer Goseong-Wonsan section of highway.
Seoul expects them to return to the North on Monday to inspect a four-kilometer stretch of highway on the western Gyeongui line near Kaesong.
Friday’s talks additionally saw the two sides agree that a number of other inter-Korean projects will go ahead.
Plans for an inter-Korean joint remains recovery operation – set to kick off at the trial stage in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between April 1 and October 31 next year – are “expected to be carried out unimpeded,” Lee said.
The ROK defense ministry had said it estimates that remains of around 10,000 South Korean soldiers are interred within the DMZ.
The two sides also agreed to push ahead with a project to provide North Koreans with flu medication.
“The provision of Tamiflu to North Korean countrymen was also solved,” Lee said Friday.
Biegun announced on Wednesday that the U.S. would seek to review its policy on humanitarian assistance provided to the DPRK.
The U.S. top North Korea negotiator on Friday reiterated his desire to ease the delivery of humanitarian aid to the DPRK and acknowledged that U.S. policy has played a role in hampering the ability of organizations to work in-country.
“Humanitarian assistance is not blocked by the U.N. sanctions,” he said. “However, some of the reviews of licenses and travel approvals do affect the ability of humanitarian organizations to do very important work in North Korea,”
Biegun, too, stressed that he was “eager to move to the next stage of discussions with our North Korean partners.”
“We expect in the course of those discussions we’ll be able to talk about some of the details around President Trump’s upcoming summit with Chairman Kim,” he added.
He did not comment, however, on a hard line commentary by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) yesterday – interpreted by some as setting the stage for tough nuclear negotiations in the 2019.
Editing and translation by Colin Zwirko
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