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Koreas Celebrate Groundbreaking for Railroad Lines in DMZ


SEOUL — Hopeful that this time the long-stalled project will go forward, South Korea today celebrated the groundbreaking of railroad lines through the demilitarized zone that would reconnect the North and South Korean lines after more than half a century.

The North Koreans reportedly were holding simultaneous ceremonies on their side of the 2 1/2-mile-wide strip that divides the two nations.

Barely in time for the groundbreaking, the North and South Korean militaries Tuesday hammered out an agreement at the truce village of Panmunjom to allow construction workers into the heavily mine-infested no man's land to start work.

The work is supposed to start Thursday with the clearing of land mines. The ambitious schedule calls for the railroads to open next year, but for the first roads alongside the lines to be ready as early as November.

In the agreement reached Tuesday, South Korea said it would provide $40 million worth of construction materials to North Korea for its part of the project. The project, one of the hallmarks of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement with North Korea, has stalled so many times over the last two years that cynics have questioned whether it will ever be completed.

The groundbreaking today, coinciding with Tuesday's historic summit in Pyongyang between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, gave heart to those who hope that the North is emerging from the extreme isolation of the past.

"The question will be not the groundbreaking itself, but what happens after the groundbreaking," said a senior U.S. military official involved with the project.

South Korea arranged much of the fanfare for the ceremonies, which took place simultaneously at multiple locations near the DMZ.

At Dorasan Station, the northernmost stop on the truncated South Korean railroad line, a train was decorated with a banner reading, "The Iron Horse wants to keep going"--a slogan expressing the hope that South Koreans might be able to take a train all the way to Pyongyang, the North's capital. The project calls for the connecting of two separate railroad lines--one that runs near the west coast of the peninsula between the capitals of the estranged Koreas and the other along the east coast. The countries hope to have a temporary road ready this year along the east coast so that South Korean tourists can visit the North Korean resort of Mt. Kumgang by land.

The deal came out of the June 2000 summit between the North and South Korean presidents. But while South Korea has completed much of the construction, North Korea has balked at its part of the bargain. The North Koreans still need to build more than seven miles of railroad on the western line and almost 11 miles on the east coast. If all goes as scheduled, the North and South portions of the railroads should be connected in the middle of the DMZ next year.

The dream is that one or both of the railroads would connect with Chinese lines and with the trans-Siberian railway into Russia--transforming the Korean peninsula into a transportation hub.

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