North and South Korea are celebrating a new rail line they can’t construct

South and North Korean officials unveil the Seoul to Pyeongyang railway sign.
South and North Korean officials unveil the Seoul to Pyeongyang railway sign.
Image: Yonhap via Reuters
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Relations between North and South Korea are improving, as evidenced by a groundbreaking ceremony today (Dec. 26) at the North Korean border town of Kaesong for a new rail line connecting the long-estranged nations. There’s just one hitch.

The two Koreas are forbidden from actually executing their travel plans. US and UN sanctions, imposed to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, ban investments in the proposed infrastructure. In fact, South Korean officials reported that they had to receive an exemption to sanctions from the UN Security Council just to hold today’s ceremony. Last month, the Koreas conducted a joint survey of North Korean railways, which also required UN approval.

Kim Yun Hyok, North Korea’s vice railroad minister alluded to the project’s political obstacles at the ceremony when he called for an “unwavering determination to stand against headwinds” that jeopardize the endeavor, and warned against “wobbling on the path while listening to what others think.” He added, “The results of the rail and road project hinge on the spirit and will of our people.”

Officials from the two nations agreed on the project in October. They will spend the next two years conducting joint surveys and designing the tracks that will connect them again after a 65-year estrangement. Assuming, of course, that sanctions are eventually lifted and that the rail reunion will be completed. “There’s a lot of things to do before we actually start construction,” South Korean Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee said before the ceremony.

The rail line is symbolic, as much as it is practical. “The railways will not only reduce time and space but also the distance between the hearts of the South and North,” the South Korean transport minister said at the ceremony.

About 100 people, including government officials and relatives separated by the 1950-1953 Korean war, traveled together from the south to Kaesong. There, many took up shovels to break ground on the project, watched as officials from both Koreas signed a concrete railroad tie, admired the unveiling of a new signboard indicating travel from Pyongyang to Seoul, and observed a ceremonial unification of northern and southern tracks at Kaesong’s Panmun Station, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

Ties between the two nations were severed in the 1950s. In the last decade or so, a thaw in relations has reconnected them to a limited degree. For example, in 2007, freight services ran between the south and a joint factory park in the north. The south sent construction materials. The north shipped clothing and shoes manufactured at the factory park southward. But this project stopped in 2008 after disputes over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

In April, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un declared the end of missile tests and closure of a nuclear test site. Nonetheless, his government occasionally wavers in its commitment to denuclearization. In November, the North Korean foreign ministry’s Institute for American Studies released a statement saying, “The US thinks that its oft-repeated ‘sanctions and pressure’ leads to ‘denuclearization.’ We cannot help laughing at such a foolish idea.”

Given this mixed messaging, it’s difficult to predict when, or if, trains will run between Seoul and Pyongyang. For now, however, there is a hopeful new sign posted at the train station in Kaesong.