The two Koreas have agreed to begin a joint inspection of cross-border railways this week, which involves the test-operation of trains on North Korean rail tracks, the Ministry of Unification said Wednesday.
“The South and North agreed to start an 18-day joint inspection of the inter-Korean railway by moving about 2,600 kilometers along the North Korean section of the railway from Nov. 30,” the ministry said.
The joint operation will be divided into two parts.
The first part will involve a six-day inspection of the North Korean side of the Gyeongui Line, from Kaesong to Sinuiju, a city on the North’s border with China. The inspection of a 400-kilometer section of the Gyeongui Line, which runs through the west coast of the Korean Peninsula, is scheduled from Friday to Dec. 5.
The focus of the operation will then shift to an 800-kilometer section of the Donghae Line in the North, from the North’s southeastern slopes of Kumgangsan to Tumen River, which serves as the boundary between the northeastern part of North Korea and China. The inspection of the eastern railway will be carried out from Dec. 8-17.
Early on Friday, a Panmunjom-bound South Korean locomotive will leave Seoul Station, carrying six cars across the border. The train will then head to the nearby Panmun Station in the North, where the South’s locomotive will be swapped with a North Korean one. The North Korean locomotive will then lead six cars, including a generator car and a tanker car to proceed with the joint inspection.
The number of North Korean cars to be connected to the train overall has yet to be decided, the ministry said.
South Korea will dispatch a 28-member team of government officials from the unification and transport ministries and officials from Korea Railroad Corp., or Korail. North Korea is expected to draw up its own roster of a similar size, the ministry said, indicating that the North has yet to submit a list for the team.
This will mark the first time that a South Korean train is running from Kumgangsan to the Tumen River on the Donghae Line since the peninsula was divided after the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea’s agreement to the joint inspection came two days after the ministry announced the South had delivered the proposal to launch the inspection this week via the joint liaison office in Kaesong, a border town in the North.
The proposal was made after the United Nations Security Council granted sanctions exemptions for the field survey over the weekend.
Earlier in the day, the North had merely replied, “We understand,” to the South’s offer to set a specific schedule for the survey, according to Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-Hyun.
The joint survey is set to take place amid observations by experts and the international community that the latest sanctions exemptions do not cover the entire railway project.
Marc Knapper, acting deputy assistant secretary at the US State Department, said at a peace forum in Seoul Wednesday that the international community is not ready for “concrete progress” on lifting sanctions for the railway project until the Pyongyang’s “final, fully verified denuclearization.”
Voice of America also reported earlier in the day remarks by an unnamed Dutch diplomat leading the UNSC committee on North Korea sanctions, claiming that additional sanctions exemptions are necessary for the proposed railway project. The official stressed that the latest sanctions waiver is limited to the joint railway survey.
In August, the US-led UNC disapproved of a plan to test run a train on a section of a western railway connecting Seoul in South Korea to Sinuiju in North Korea via the North’s border town of Kaesong, citing procedural problems. But the move was viewed as stemming from US concerns that inter-Korean projects were not proceeding in tandem with progress in US-North Korea denuclearization talks.
There were also concerns surrounding fuel and materials that were to enter North Korea during the test operation.
According to reports on Tuesday, Seoul has started consulting the UNC on details of the test operation. Seoul is required to meet the UNC guidelines of providing relevant notifications and documents 48 hours in advance.
The joint railway inspection will be the first of its kind in about a decade. In 2007, the two Koreas held a test train operation on a 412-kilometer railway linking Kaesong to Sinuiju in the North.
According to Lee Do-hoon, Seoul’s top nuclear envoy, the US has expressed “strong support” for the joint survey, after attending a recent working group meeting with the US.
The railway inspection is part of joint efforts to implement the agreement reached by the leaders of the two Koreas in April at the truce village of Panmunjom.