The cross-border service is seen as a key step in reconciliation between North and South [AFP]


North and South Korea have begun operating a regular cross-border cargo train service.

 

The service which began on Tuesday is the first to cross the heavily-fortified joint border in more than 50 years and is seen as a key step in reconciliation between North and South Korea.

 

Eventually, it is hoped the service will offer exporters the potential to link into rail services all the way into Europe via the trans-Siberian railway.

 

"We are re-linking the last vein that has been severed for 56 years," Lee Chul, president of state operator Korail, told reporters.

 

The freight train service is the first tangible outcome of a reconciliation pact signed by the leaders of the two Koreas in October, outlining a variety of peace and economic projects.

 

Topping the list are calls for a formal peace agreement to be signed, formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War.

 

'Dream come true'

 

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Tuesday's train, pulled by a flower-decked locomotive, carried 10 container cars across the frontier from South to North Korea.

 

The service is expected to carry raw materials and manufactured goods between South Korea and the North Korean border city of Kaesong, site of a Seoul-funded industrial estate.

 

The train is expected to slash the cost of using hundreds of trucks to move goods back and forth every day.

 

The last regular railway operation was in 1951, during the 1950-53 Korean War, but the South's long-term plans include connecting the line to the Trans-China and Trans-Siberian railways.

 

Many Koreans hope the daily freight service, which mainly carried kerbstones for road-building on its first trip, will one day ferry people across the border.

 

Shin Jang-Chul, the train's driver, said for him it was "a dream come true".

 

"I'm happy to drive this train to the North where both my parents were born. I hope not only cargoes but tourists as well will use this train to go back and forth."

 

Fishermen rescued

 

In a separate development on Tuesday South Korea's navy said it had rescued five North Korean fishermen from a small boat that had been adrift for nearly a month.

 

The one-ton wooden boat was found on Monday about 50 km northeast of Ulleung Island off South Korea's east coast, officials said.

 

The boat had apparently been drifting for 27 days after its engine broke down.

 

A spokesman for South Korea's intelligence agency told the Associated Press they were trying to determine whether the men wanted to be returned home, saying their intentions would be respected.

 

Source: Agencies