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South Korean Train Heads To The North For The First Time In More Than A Decade


A South Korean train pulled into North Korea today. It's a taste of what's to come if the two Koreas reconnect their railways after being separated for more than half a century. South Korea is determined to push ahead with the project despite North Korea's lack of progress on nuclear issues. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Paju, South Korea.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: That's our train. We're aboard the DMZ Train, a three-car tourist train which is bound for Dorasan Station, the last stop before the inter-Korean border. Inside the train are words such as peace, love and harmony in several languages. The plan is for railways running up and down the east and west coast of the Korean Peninsula and a line linking them in the middle. The lines would connect to others leading on to the rest of Asia and Europe. At a ceremony at the Dorasan Station this morning, South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon saw off nearly 30 engineers and officials as they prepared to cross the border and head north.


CHO MYOUNG-GYON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Through the connected railways, South and North Korea will prosper together," he said, "and solidify peace on the Korean Peninsula." North and South Korean inspectors will cover about 1,600 miles surveying the state of the rails in North Korea. Cho added that South Korea will push hard to break ground on the reconnection project by year's end. And he told the surveyors...


CHO: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: ..."You will visit train stations and cross hills and rivers in North Korea that no outsiders have visited before." South Korea had to apply for an exception from the U.N. committee that manages sanctions on North Korea, and that was just for the survey. South Koreans are aware that reconnecting the rails is unlikely to happen without progress towards denuclearization. And although leader Kim Jong Un has pledged to abandon his nukes, there's been little progress since. Nurse's aide Chang Yoon-hee rode the DMZ Train to Dorasan.

CHANG YOON-HEE: (Through interpreter) I look positively at the reconnection of the railways. And if it happens, I want to ride this train not just to Pyongyang but to Russia and Europe.

KUHN: Are you worried that it might never happen, though?

CHANG: (Through interpreter) I have concerns, but I also have hopes. And knowing our president is doing his best to solve the situation, I support his efforts.

KUHN: The railways are part of a blueprint proposed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to integrate North and South Korea's economies and in the process nudge North Korea away from its centrally planned economy towards a more market-driven one. But speaking at a conference this week, Seoul National University economist professor Kim Byung-Yeon questions whether the proposed infrastructure projects would actually do that.


KIM BYUNG-YEON: If this project's implemented, I will expect a huge cost but less efficiency.

KUHN: Kim argues that what North Korea lacks is...


KIM: Not infrastructure but private enterprises producing goods and services.

KUHN: Kim and other economists draw parallels with West Germany, which continues to pay a huge cost - nearly $2 trillion by some estimates - to reunify with East Germany. If that parallel wasn't obvious enough, there's actually a chunk of the Berlin Wall sitting on the platform at the Dorasan Station. There's a clock on either side of the chunk counting down the days, minutes and seconds to unification. Germany's is complete. Korea's has yet to begin. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Paju City, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.