Two Koreas to speed up railway projects

Source: The Korea Times / 25 November 2018

The two Koreas may start a joint field study this week at the earliest on reconnecting their railways, according to a unification ministry official, Sunday.

The study will be possible if the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) Sanctions Committee on North Korea grants a sanctions exemption, Friday.

The United States on Sunday also granted an exemption to its independent sanctions and allowed the study to proceed.

Such developments fuel speculation that other inter-Korean projects may proceed, under a condition that they faithfully observe sanctions on Pyongyang and sufficient consultations are made with the UNSC in advance.

The UNSC had thwarted the rail inspection plan for months, amid U.S. concerns it may violate nuclear sanctions that include severe limits on shipments of fuel and other goods into the North.

The survey would require the South to bring to the North fuel, food and a variety of equipment, including cars to test on northern tracks, as well as engineers.

"The joint field study can begin soon, possibly this week," a unification ministry official said. "We're coordinating the final schedule with the North."

If realized, it will begin at both west and east coasts simultaneously.

With UNSC and U.S. approvals, the two Koreas plan to hold a groundbreaking ceremony by the end of this year. But moving beyond surveys and tape-cuttings is still not likely without lifting of U.S.-led sanctions against North Korea, according to analysts.

"The U.S. wants to have leverage on North Korea in denuclearization talks. And it does not want South Korea to push ahead with inter-Korean projects too quickly and apparently weaken sanctions," said Shin Beom-cheol, a senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. "Of course, the South will be careful not to violate the sanctions but it still can be misunderstood as diverting from the alliance against the North."

Some analysts speculated the approval for the joint field study may have positive impact on the Washington-Pyongyang dialogue for denuclearization.

The two sides were scheduled to hold high-level talks in the U.S. early this month. But the plan was called off at the last minute as they failed to narrow differences on to what extent the sanctions should be eased and also to what extent the North's denuclearization should be verified.

The inter-Korean projects come in line with agreements reached between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their summits this year.

They include modernizing underground cables at the truce village of Panmunjeom and restoring North Korea's forests.

On Nov. 20, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apparently raised concerns over a rift in the U.S.-South Korea alliance amid faster-than-expected cooperation between the two Koreas.

"We do want to make sure that peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea aren't lagging behind the increase in the amount of interrelationship between the two Koreas," he said. "We view them as tandem, as moving forward together."