For First Time in a Decade, a South Korean Train Rolls Into the North

SEOUL, South Korea — A South Korean train on Friday crossed into North Korea for the first time in a decade, as the two countries began a joint study on renovating the North’s decrepit rail system and linking it to the South’s.

Over the next 18 days, dozens of officials and engineers from both Koreas will live and work on the six-car train, traveling more than 1,600 miles as they study the North’s rail network and consider what it would take to bring it up to international standards. The train rolled north across the countries’ heavily armed border on Friday morning.

The joint study “signals that inter-Korean cooperation is reaching a new level,” said Kim Eui-kyeom, the spokesman for President Moon Jae-in of South Korea.

The study is one of a number of collaborative projects that Mr. Moon has championed to develop closer ties with the North and demonstrate what economic benefits the country could gain from giving up nuclear weapons. When Mr. Moon and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, met for the first time in April, the South agreed to help rebuild the North’s railroads and highways, which Mr. Kim said were in “embarrassing” shape.

But whether that happens will depend on progress in ridding the North of its nuclear arms. International sanctions imposed on the North over its weapons program forbid the kind of significant investment from the South that such infrastructure work would entail. Even bringing in the fuel and equipment needed to carry out the joint rail study required special approval from the United Nations Security Council.

The two Koreas last conducted such research in 2007, when they carried out a limited field study on a rail line in western North Korea. They connected short stretches of railway across their border that year.

A South Korean cargo train ran five times a week on one of those short cross-border routes until 2008, when the countries’ relations began to sour over the North’s pursuit of nuclear arms. Plans for further connections between the two rail systems were suspended.

Mr. Moon hopes that the Koreas will one day reconnect their rail lines, which have been severed since the 1950-53 Korean War, as a step toward economic integration and, eventually, reunification.

But while Mr. Moon has been eager to pursue such projects, the United States is adamant that the South refrain from significant economic collaboration with the North until it takes major steps toward denuclearization. The apparent discord raised fears of a rift in the alliance.

South Korea’s proposal to conduct the rail study was thwarted earlier this year by American concerns that it could violate United Nations sanctions. But last week, Washington and Seoul launched a joint working group to better coordinate their interactions with North Korea, and the United States signed off on the rail study.

Mr. Moon has said he agrees with the Trump administration that major economic cooperation with the North can begin only after sanctions have been lifted. He plans to meet with President Trump on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit conference in Argentina this weekend to discuss how to break a stalemate in the denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States.

South Korea, whose only land border is with the North, has long dreamed of building a trans-Korean railroad that could provide a link to China and beyond. That would give it a faster way to ship exports that are now sent by sea to China and Europe, and to bring in Russian oil and other natural resources.

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