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N Korea at crossroads

Moon pushes inter-Korean railway ahead of Pyongyang visit

President prepares economic incentives to encourage denuclearization

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks at a ceremony on Aug. 15 marking the 73rd anniversary of liberation from Japan's colonial rule.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants to spur economic cooperation with the North as he pushes for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but such prospects are clouded by the stall in Washington-Pyongyang talks.

Speaking Wednesday at a ceremony marking Korea's independence from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II, Moon expressed hope for joint projects, including an inter-Korean railway and special economic zones.

Feasibility studies for the proposed railway have been completed by both sides. They aim to hold groundbreaking ceremonies by year's end, according to Moon. The North hopes to renovate its aging rail equipment.

Moon also proposed creating an East Asian railroad community involving six neighboring countries and the U.S. This framework, which could eventually include Russia, "will initiate a Northeast Asian multilateral peace and security system," he said.

"When peace is established on the Korean Peninsula along with complete denuclearization, economic cooperation can be carried out in earnest," Moon said.

Struggling with a low approval rating at home, the government has reason to talk up its efforts toward reconciliation with North Korea.

The president's vision for economic cooperation hinges on a lifting of sanctions adopted by the United Nations Security Council against the North. But prospects for that are murky.

The U.S. and North Korea have made little progress on the denuclearization process since their leaders held a historic meeting in Singapore in June. Washington is expected to keep the sanctions in place until denuclearization is achieved.

Seeking to break the stalemate, Moon intends to urge North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to make efforts on "complete denuclearization" when they meet in Pyongyang in September for their third summit.

The South Korean leader revealed plans to establish special economic zones on his side of the border. Like the now-suspended Kaesong industrial park in North Korea, the zones would be host to South Korean small and midsize businesses. They would accept workers from North Korea.

The Moon government is performing a delicate balancing act. Washington is urging South Korea to exercise caution in pursuing inter-Korean economic cooperation, while Pyongyang is prodding its southern neighbor to make progress on this front. 

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