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Korean border crossed at last

18 May 2007

CELEBRATIONS and fireworks on May 17 marked the long-awaited operation of two trains across the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, almost 56 years after the peninsula's rail network was severed in June 1951.

To ensure symmetry, two trains were operated. A South Korean train ran north over the western Kyeongui line between Munsan and Kaesong (27 km), whilst a North Korean train ran south over the Donghae line's 25 km eastern border crossing from Keumkangsan to Jejin. The Korail trainset was formed of a diesel loco, five Saemaul coaches and a generator car. The NKR train also comprised five coaches and a diesel loco. Each carried around 150 invited guests - 100 South Koreans and 50 from the North.

Running at a top speed of 40 km/h, the first train left Munsan at 12.17, creeping through a gate in the barbed wire fence to enter the 4 km wide DMZ. The southbound train left Keumkangsan a few minutes later.

'A new chapter for peace is opening in Korean history', said South Korea's Unification Minister Lee Jae-Joung. 'This will be a turning point for overcoming the legacy of the Cold War era, tearing down the wall of division and opening a new era for peace and reunification.'

His North Korean counterpart Kwon Ho-Ung said both sides would strive 'to ensure that the train for reunification driven by the North and South rushes forward along the track for peace and solidarity.'

The events marked the culmination of more than seven years of talks, which began in July 2000 with discussions about re-opening the Kyeongui line between Seoul and Pyongyang. Groundbreaking ceremonies for reactivating this route and the Donghae line were held in September 2002.

According to Korail, a 'basic agreement' on cross-border operations was adopted in April 2004, but three subsequent attempts to run a train proved fruitless. The most recent proposal was cancelled on the day before the test run should have taken place, with the North Korean side citing security concerns.

The two governments agreed on May 1 to restart the negotiations. South Korea subsequently agreed to fund the shipment of 400 000 tonnes of rice worth US$170m to the North, along with raw materials to produce consumer goods worth US$80m.

The adoption of an agreement on security by the respective military authorities on May 11 paved the way for operation of the two ceremonial trains. However, at this stage there is no commitment to start regular test running, let alone to introduce commercial services.