Korean Freight Trains To Begin Daily Service Soon
By Kurt Achin
S. Korean Freight Trains to Begin Daily Service to North Within Weeks
South Korea says it is about to start sending freight trains loaded with cargo on daily round trips into North Korea - the first regular North-South train traffic between the two Cold War enemies.
South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung told reporters Thursday the North-South train traffic will be up and running within weeks.
Lee says cargo trains will soon make a short daily round trip to North Korea starting December 11. He praises the new train route as both significant and practical.
North-South Korean train routes were severed after North Korea invaded the South in 1950 to start the three-year Korean War. The two sides remain technically at war, with only a 1953 armistice as the backbone for a tense peace along their heavily armed border.
Since the two sides held their first summit in 2000, however, North-South relations have warmed. After years of famine killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in the 1990's, many South Koreans came to see the North through a lens of sympathy rather than fear.
The result has been billions of dollars in South Korean aid, plus investment in economic projects aimed at rescuing the North's decayed economy.
A centerpiece of what South Korea calls its "peace and prosperity" policy toward the North is a South Korean-built and managed industrial zone in the North Korean city of Kaesong.
Unification Minister Lee says the main goal of the new train service is to supply Kaesong, which lies along the 20-kilometer-long route. He says it will now be very easy to keep Kaesong supplied with raw materials, and should help spark the zone's productivity.
Nearly 20,000 North Korean workers are employed by South Korean companies in the zone, mainly manufacturing low-technology consumer goods such as clothing. South Korean authorities say the zone allows the South to cut labor costs while exposing the Stalinist North to capitalist production methods.
South Korean authorities have not said whether the contents of the daily train shipments will be revealed publicly.
Seoul has come under frequent criticism for sending large amounts of aid to the North with very little monitoring or other strings attached. Conservative critics of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun say generous South Korean handouts facilitated Pyongyang's test of a nuclear weapon in October of last year.
South Korean officials say their country has a financial interest in developing train routes in the North. Eventually, they hope to connect their rail network to China, Russia, and Europe via the North. That could help slash transport costs for producers in the South's export-heavy economy.