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N Korea at crossroads

Two Koreas give road and rail projects a ceremonial push

Sanctions loom over groundbreaking event for transport links

A train takes South Korean officials to inspect the North's railway infrastructure on Nov. 30, weeks before the groundbreaking ceremony.    © Kyodo

SEOUL -- North and South Korea on Wednesday took a step toward reconnecting roads and railways across their divided peninsula, though international sanctions against Pyongyang still stand in the way.

Aiming to maintain the recent mood of reconciliation, the neighbors held a groundbreaking ceremony at Panmun Station in the northern border city of Kaesong. About 200 officials from both sides attended, including South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon and Ri Son Gwon, the chairman of North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.

High-ranking officials from China, Russia, Mongolia and the United Nations were also invited.

The event was the result of talks between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this year. In the run-up, from late November to mid-December, South Korean delegates conducted an 18-day investigation of North Korea's railway facilities, including tracks and tunnels.

The Moon administration envisions a railway line running from the Korean Peninsula through China and Russia to reach Europe. This, he hopes, would support the economic development of the two Koreas. In an Aug. 15 speech, the president called for creating an East Asian railway community that includes six nearby countries, including Japan, as well as the U.S.

For the North, the cooperation provides a chance to upgrade its aging railway infrastructure with financial assistance from neighboring countries. Experts believe the country's frail tracks and inadequate power supply allow trains to run at about 40 kph at best.

Yet if the initiative is to succeed, economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council will need to be relaxed. U.S. President Donald Trump has signaled he wants sanctions to remain in place until North Korea denuclearizes.

For the Kaesong ceremony, South Korea asked the Security Council to make an exception for transporting materials into the North. On Friday, Lee Do-hoon, special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs for South Korea, met with Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, and obtained consent to go ahead with the ceremony.

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