North and South Korea have agreed to hold a ceremonial groundbreaking for a project to reconnect railways and roads across the divided peninsula, despite concerns of possible sanctions violations.
Following talks with Pyongyang on Thursday, Seoul’s unification ministry said in a statement that the ceremony would be held on December 26 at Panmun station – the first North Korean terminal across the border – in Kaesong.
About 100 people from each side will attend and the “North and South will continue discussions on detailed issues”, the ministry said.
But the event will not herald the start of actual work on the plans, which even if they go ahead will not see the border opened to unrestricted travel.
Before the Koreas were divided in 1948, there were two railway lines running down either side of the peninsula.
As a gesture towards reconciliation, the two reconnected the western line in 2007 and limited numbers of freight trains transported materials and goods to and from the Seoul-invested Kaesong industrial zone in North Korea for about a year.
But they went no further, and re-establishing the lines would be unlikely to enable Northerners to leave for the South, as Pyongyang imposes tight restrictions on freedom of movement for its citizens.
The South’s President Moon Jae-in has been pushing engagement with the nuclear-armed North to try to persuade it to give up its weapons, but talks between Pyongyang and Washington have stalled with the US demanding North Korea make further moves before any sanctions relief is offered.
Connecting the rail systems on either side of the Demilitarised Zone and refurbishing the North’s dilapidated tracks – a marked contrast to the South’s KTX high-speed lines – was one of the steps agreed by Moon and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un earlier year.
But the project has been delayed amid concerns it could violate the United Nations sanctions imposed on the North over its nuclear and missile programmes.
Earlier this month, South Korean officials and engineers belatedly began a joint study of the North’s tracks after the UN Security Council granted an exemption.
Seoul said the survey was purely aimed at gathering information on the current state of the North’s rail system and pledged that actual restoration works would come only after consent from the UN.
It is unclear whether the South needs to seek another UN exemption for the ceremony.