SEOUL (Reuters) - North and South Korea will send trains across their heavily-armed border on Thursday for the first time since their 1950-1953 war, a move Seoul sees as a milestone in reconciliation.
Celebrities, politicians and even a conductor on the last train to cross the border in 1951 will be on board the two trains — one starting in the North and one in the South — that will go about 25 km (15 miles) each across the Cold War’s last frontier.
“The government in Seoul and the South Korean people themselves have been starved for some signs of reciprocity,” said Brian Myers, an associate professor of international relations at Dongseo University.
South Korea, fearful of the hundreds of billions of dollars it would cost to unify with its impoverished neighbour, has sought a series of projects to gradually bring the two together.
But the South Korean government has been criticised at home for sending massive aid to the North only to see its largesse rebuffed by Pyongyang, which has halted cooperation projects and sparked a security crisis with a nuclear test last year.
The two Koreas, still technically still at war because their conflict ended only in a truce, have lived with a razor wire and land-mine strewn border dividing the peninsula for decades and over 1 million troops near a demilitarised buffer zone.
North and South Koreans will ride together in the two passenger trains that will carry 150 people each on links built by the South — one on the east coast and the other about 60 km (40 miles) northwest of Seoul.
North Korea’s military, fearful of increased openings between the isolated country and the outside world, cancelled a planned run a year ago. It agreed last week to a one-off run, despite pressure from Seoul for more crossings.
To entice the North to allow the crossing, South Korea has offered some $80 million in aid for its light industries. It has already built cavernous and now idle stations near the border in anticipation of regular rail runs.
South Korea has built the rail links in order to serve two projects its has built in the North.
One is a mountain resort on the east coast and the other is a factory park the South sees as a model of economic integration where its companies use cheap North Korean labour and land to produce goods.
Eventually, South Korea said it wants to send passengers and cargo into China and Russia and link with the Trans-Siberian railway.
Export-dependent South Korea could see huge savings in moving cargo if North Korea allows the rail link, said Na Hee-seung, a rail specialist at the South’s Korea Railroad Research Institute.
He said the South may be looking to finance an overhaul of parts of North Korea’s rail system, which was largely built during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the peninsula.
“It is in South Korea’s interest to update North Korea’s rail infrastructure,” Na said.
With additional reporting by Jessica Kim