South Korean Vice Transport Minister Kim Jeong-ryeol with North Korean Vice Railroad Minister Kim Yun-hyok prepare to begin inter-Korean talks on railway cooperation Panmunjom on June 26. (photo pool)
Plans for a South Korean train to travel to Sinuiju for a joint South and North Korean inspection of railway conditions in the North were reportedly put on ice after the UN Command refused to grant permission.
The South Korean government’s position is that the project in question does not represent an area subject to UN or US sanctions against North Korea. Critics have been vocal in proclaiming that Washington’s interference in inter-Korean cooperation efforts to implement the terms of the Apr. 27 Panmunjeom Declaration have reached the point of infringing on sovereignty. The commander of the UN Command also serves as US Forces Korea commander.
According to accounts on Aug. 29 from multiple government and other sources acquainted with the inter-Korean railway cooperation effort, the South Korean government gave notice on Aug. 23 of its plans to bring a train in and out of North Korea as well as the associated staff, but was denied approval by UN Command.
The initial plan had been to have the South Korean train (six train cars connected to a locomotive) depart from Seoul Station and travel to Sinuiju at the far northern end of the Gyeongui (Seoul-Sinuiju) railway line in North Korea, with South and North Korea conducting a joint inspection on the North Korean stretch of the line between Kaesong and Sinuiju. According to the armistice agreement, the UN Command has authority to grant or refuse approval on individuals and items passing over the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).
US government puts the brakes on inter-Korean relations in the name of UN Command
As a reason for refusing approval, the command reportedly cited the fact that the South Korean government had not observed the deadline for prior notification. Authorities are required to notify each other 48 hours in advance in the case of plans for passage over the MDL in either direction, and 24 hours in advance by military hotline for “transit plans.”
While the armistice agreement requires notification between military authorities to take place between the UN Command and North Korean military, the South Korean military has followed a practice of discussing and obtaining approval on matters from the UN Command and informing North Korea, due to the latter’s unwillingness to engage with the UN Command.
But with the matter of “prior notification deadlines” previously approached in a more flexible way in light of political conditions or the urgency of situations, many observers are saying the UN’s grounds for denying approval are mere excuses.
“In reality, the UN Command’s approval authority has been a formality, and the practice has been to substitute it with notification from the South Korean military,” said a source familiar with the handling of duties related to normal passage over the MDL by South Korean personnel after the 2004 opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
“The only conclusion you can reach is that the US government is making a big deal about the prior notification deadline because it wants to stop this project from going ahead,” the source suggested. The UN Command did not respond to related inquiries from the Hankyoreh.
Approval would have sent South Korean train into NK for second time since Korean War
According to sources close to the joint inspection project for the North Korean section of the Gyeongui line, South and North Korean authorities had planned to form an inspection team consisting chiefly of rail officials on both sides (including KORAIL and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport for the South), attaching six train cars to a South Korean locomotive (including a passenger car, conference car, sleeping car, and cars for fuel and water) and taking the train from Seoul Station over the MDL to Kaesong, Pyongyang, and finally Sinuiju.
In the North Korean section, the train was to be joined by North Korean rail officials, and a North Korean locomotive was to replace the South Korean one at the head of the six South Korean cars – an adjustment made in consideration of the difficulties South Korean engineers face operating trains in the North due to the different communications and signaling systems.
Many different considerations appeared to have operated in the two sides’ agreement on this approach to jointly expecting the North Korean section of the Gyeongui line, including practical, historical, and strategic factors. In practical terms, the most effective means of conducting a joint inspection is to use an actual train. Historically, the joint inspection would have been the second example of a South Korean train traveling as far as the Sinuiju end of the line since the two sides’ railways were divided on Sept. 11, 1945.
One previous test run of a South Korean train from Seoul to Sinuiju took place after an agreement in the October 4 Joint Declaration in 2007 to use the Gyeongui line to send a joint inter-Korean cheering squad to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. (The plan to send a cheering squad by train never came to pass as inter-Korean relations deteriorated after the Lee Myung-bak administration came into office.)
Significance of joint railway cooperation without violating UN sanctions
Strategically, the inspection would have had a strongly symbolic effect, sending a powerful message about the two sides’ commitment to railway cooperation to the global community without violating UN or US sanctions against North Korea. Even as a one-off event, a train traveling over the full stretch from Seoul Station to Sinuiju would hasten visible progress on inter-Korean railway cooperation at a time when sanctions prevent immediate efforts to modernize the railway’s North Korean section.
In their Panmunjeom Declaration on Apr. 27, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to “adopt practical steps towards the connection and modernization of the railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor as well as between Seoul and Sinuiju for their utilization.”
President Moon also described the linkage of railway and roads in his National Liberation Day address on Aug. 15 as the “beginning of shared prosperity on the Korean Peninsula,” adding that his “goal is to have a groundbreaking ceremony within the year for the linkage of railways and roads as agreed upon in the Panmunjom Declaration.”
UNC offers no concrete reason behind refusal
The UN Command responded on Aug. 30 by sending a message to the Ministry of National Defense’s press office, requesting the South Korean government’s understanding in the UN Command’s denial of permission for joint inspections of railways between the North Korean cities of Kaesong and Munsan. The message also reiterated that the UN Command had asked for “more specific details” regarding the inspections.
On a final note, the message emphasized the UN Command’s commitment to the Korean Armistice Agreement and expressed its will to continue cooperating with South Korean authorities to support diplomatic efforts. The message did not make any mention regarding the exact reasons behind the UN Command’s refusal to allow South Korean government officials to pass through the DMZ.
By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer
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