Koreas break ground

North and South Korea Hold Groundbreaking Ceremony for Railway Project Stalled by Sanctions

Koreas break ground
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The Koreas’ joint survey of North Korean railways in November, which also required U.N. approval, marked the first time a South Korean train traveled on North Korean tracks.

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SEOUL, South Korea >> North and South Korea broke ground today on an ambitious project to modernize North Korean railways and roads and connect them with the South, but without progress in nuclear negotiations, regular trains won’t be crossing the border anytime soon.

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Korea observers in D.C. have cautioned that South Koreas eagerness to improve relations between the Koreas could drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.A North Korean official, speaking at Wednesdays ceremony, hinted at those tensions.The success of the North-South Korea rail and road projects is dependent on our willpower and determination, Vice Minister of Rail Kim Yun Hyok said, according to news reports.

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But any significant progress to update the railways and resume regular train service is likely out of the question until the U.S.-enforced sanctions are rolled back.Connecting the railways was one of the first pledges announced by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un when they first met in April.In the months since, both in domestic addresses and before the U.N. General Assembly, Moon has touted connecting the railways as the first step to forming what he termed the East Asian Railroad Community something he said would integrate North Korea into the regional economy and bring all-around prosperity and peace.This is not the first time the Koreas have sought to link up the rail systems severed during the Korean War.

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One challenge will be to get the United States on board as it looks for leverage to persuade North Korea to drop its nuclear program.The nine-car train carried a host of South Korean unification and transportation officials, traveling north for a largely ceremonial groundbreaking on a railway that officials said they hoped would one day ferry people and goods by land from South Korea all the way to Western Europe through North Korea and across China or Russia.Government officials from North and South Korea held a symbolic ceremony Wednesday to reconnect the railway.We know that linking the railways and roadways is much more than just a physical connection, South Korean Transportation Minister Kim Hyun-mee said at the ceremony, according to prepared remarks provided by the government.

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Whereas the United States chooses to slap sanctions on North Korea for complete denuclearization, South Korea’s strategy is to gradually push for denuclearization by offering multiple carrots for motivation while keeping good relations with the North,” Park Hyung-joong, head researcher of North Korea policy department at Korea Institute of National Unification, told ABC News.

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The ceremony at the North Korean border town of Kaesong came weeks after the Koreas conducted a joint survey on the northern railway sections they hope to someday link with the South.

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"The railways will not only cut down on time and space, but also the distance between the hearts of North and South Korea.South Korea received exemptions from U.N. sanctions designed to pressure North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons to survey conditions and hold Wednesdays ceremony.

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Korea Pool/Getty Images PHOTO:South and North Korea's officials try to connect the railroad during the ceremony for a project to modernize and connect roads and railways over the border between the Koreas at Panmun Station, Dec. 26, 2018, in Kaesong, North Korea.

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South Korea’s government plans to conduct further surveys on North Korean railways and roads before drawing up a detailed blueprint for the project.

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Before the train departed Seoul Station early Wednesday en route to Dorasan Station, a small group of about 10 protesters held up signs decrying the rail project, referring to Kim Jong Un as a murderous dictator, according to news reports.Even if the project were to get past political opposition, theres also the matter of cost: updating more than 3,000 miles of tracks in North Korea, which Kim Jong Un admitted were in an embarrassing state, is expected to run in the hundreds of millions of dollars at minimum.

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