|SLUG: 47350 Korea's Railroad||DATE:||NOTE NUMBER:|
TITLE=KOREAS / RAILROAD
INTRO: UN military officials in South Korea have met their North Korean counterparts to discuss cooperation for building railroad and highway links across the world's most heavily defended border. This week's meeting was the first since South Korea started work on its side of the frontier nearly two months ago. When completed, it will be the first time North and South Korea will have direct transportation links in 55 years. But as VOA's Alisha Ryu reports, South Koreans have mixed feelings about reestablishing contact with their once hostile and isolated neighbor.
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Since the groundbreaking work began on September 18th, engineers have been working feverishly to rebuild the severed railway line at Imjin River some 30 kilometers north of the capital, Seoul.
The railway has not been in use since the end of World War Two when the two Koreas separated into communist North Korea and democratic South Korea at the 38th parallel. The railroad once tied Seoul to Shinuiju a major North Korean industrial town located at the estuary of the Yalu River. Seoul says it will also build a parallel four-lane highway.
The transport project is one of several inter-Korean related confidence-building agreements reached during South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's historic June peace summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The two Koreas have remained technically at war since the Korean War ended in 1953 in an armed truce. The two sides have had virtually no contact ever since.
So the news of rail and road links stunned 40 year-old housewife Kim Joo-hee who has lived her entire life under the shadow of the Cold War.
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I was so surprised to hear the two sides made such progress in such a short time. But I am not worried. I think it will be a good thing, even if it is just symbolic.
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But long-time resident and Korea observer Michael Breen thinks by moving quickly to restore physical links with the North, the government is thinking beyond the symbolism of a unified Korea.
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No, it is not pure symbolism. There is a lot of practical thinking going on behind the proposal. Economically, it now means that land routes to Asia and Europe will open up for South Korean products. I think it is a very shrewd move.
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Through North Korea, the railroad could connect South Korea to China and Central Asia. That in turn could connect it to the European continent. The government says the new so-called Iron-Silk Road could also rapidly benefit impoverished North Korea by facilitating transportation and trade between the two Koreas.
But South Korean opposition party members and some military experts have voiced strong objections to the railroad-highway project. They say it poses a grave security threat because it cuts through the heart of the Demilitarized Zone (D-M-Z) - a four kilometer-wide strip of land that remains the most heavily fortified place on earth with almost two million troops deployed on both sides, including 37 thousand American troops in South Korea.
They point out that the area where the four-lane highway is to be built sits in the corridor used by North Korea to launch a surprise attack against the South in 1950. Critic Paik Jin-hyun is a policy and defense expert at Seoul University.
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I think national security is very important. Although we had a summit with the North and had dialogues, North Korea still has almost one million forward-deployed forces along the D-M-Z. There is still heavy artillery located along the D-M-Z. There have been no serious talks between North and South about how to reduce the military tension on the Korean peninsula.
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Other South Koreans like Park Ji-ho say they see the railway-road project as bringing famine-stricken North Korea's economic problems to a country that is ill-prepared to deal with them at the present time.
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I feel the pace of reconciliation is going a bit fast. Economically we are worlds apart. Why are we rushing to be with each other if only one side is capable of contributing anything? South Korea's economy is still very fragile and I think catering to North Korean needs will make it even worse.
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But such worries may be premature. It is not known when cash-strapped North Korea will be ready and willing to begin restoring the railroad on its side of the border.
Without a functioning track on the northern side and more confidence-building measures from Pyongyang, South Korea could watch its railroad gather dust once more. (Signed)