North Korea is willing to host South Korean firms' investment in the country's railway project with Russia, a South Korean government official said Thursday after a recent on-site inspection visit to the North.
A group of 38 government officials and representatives from South Korean rail operator KORAIL, steelmaker POSCO and shipping company Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. returned on Tuesday from their one-week visit to the North's Rajin port near the country's northeastern border with Russia.
It was the three-firm consortium's second visit to the North, intended to conduct a feasibility study on their plan to join the so-called Rajin-Khasan logistics project, linking the North Korean port city to Russia's Trans-Siberian railway.
"(The North) basically said they are pleased with South Korean investment and reacted with a hope that this (deal) could help South-North Korean relations advance," a South Korean government official who joined the recent North Korean tour said on condition of anonymity.
The official said based on the recent on-site inspection, the local business consortium may finalize the review of its plan to join the project, adding that it is likely to strike a deal with the Russian side later this year or early next year.
During their summit meeting in Seoul in November, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed to help the South Korean firms join the project, which would let them invest indirectly in the North.
The local consortium is reportedly planning to test-run a transportation route within this year to move Russian coal to the North Korean port and then to ship it to South Korea's eastern port of Pohang.
The official said the North Korean port of Rajin is now fully ready for such coal transportation.
"(Transportation) seemed to be possible at any time," the official said, referring to the Rajin port's third pier, which has been completed recently and launched last week. The local consortium is seeking to use the new pier if it enters into the North Korean-Russian project.
The new pier is capable of handling 4 million tons of coal annually, the official added.
Under the bilateral logistics project, North Korea and Russia reopened in November a 54-kilometer stretch of railroad track linking the North Korean port to the eastern border Russian city of Khasan after a five-year renovation.
The South Korean official also said the cross-border railroad was being well operated as of recently.
If the local consortium finally decides to join the project, it reportedly may so do by acquiring half of Russia's share in the project.
The South Korean government has been promoting South Korean firms' participation in the logistics project, which it views as closely linked to President Park Guen-hye's "Eurasian Initiative," a vision that calls for building more infrastructure and freeing up trade between Eurasian nations to create what could become a large single market rivaling the European Union.
The unification ministry earlier said that a formal deal between the consortium and its Russian counterpart for the project will be signed in the second half of the year. (Yonhap)