A South Korean delegation crossed the border into North Korea on Wednesday to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for reconnecting and repairing roads and railways across the divided peninsula despite stalled denuclearisation talks.
A nine-car special train carrying around 100 South Koreans, including officials and five people born in the North, was seen leaving Seoul railway station early in the morning for the North's border city of Kaesong.
The train in red, white and blue was carrying a slogan on its side which read: ‘Let's open an era of peace and prosperity together-- reconnection of South-North railways and roads.’
Near the platform, a small group of around 10 protestors held banners denouncing the North's leader as a murderous dictator and condemning the transport linkage as aimed at communizing the whole Korean peninsula.
About two hours later, a still photograph was broadcast on South Korean television showing the train arriving at Panmun Station at Kaesong where the ceremony will take place.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North's leader Kim Jong Un agreed to hold the ceremony by the end of this year when they met at their third summit in Pyongyang in September.
- Sanctions exempt -
Concerns arose that the train and other materials being brought into the North for the ceremony could breach various sanctions imposed on the isolated regime over its nuclear weapons programme, but the UN Security Council reportedly granted a waiver for the event.
Seoul stressed that the ceremony would not herald the start of actual work on reconnecting and modernising road and rail links between the two Koreas -- which remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace treaty.
The event is a mere ‘expression of a commitment’ to the projects, a South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman said, adding that construction would depend on ‘progress on the North's denuclearisation and circumstances concerning sanctions’.
The two sides wrapped up their joint railway and road inspections for the projects this month.
South Korea has set aside some $620,000 for the endeavour.
The ceremony comes as the United States ramps up efforts to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
Following a rapid rapprochement earlier this year that culminated in a historic summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, progress has stalled with both sides accusing each other of dragging their feet and acting in bad faith.
Critics say North Korea has made no concrete commitments and is unlikely to surrender its atomic arsenal, while Washington's policy of maintaining pressure through isolation and sanctions has left Pyongyang seething.
- Second summit -
Trump said Monday that he was ‘looking forward’ to his second summit with Kim, which Washington says may take place early next year.
He tweeted the statement after he was briefed by Stephen Biegun, the US special representative on North Korea, who wrapped up a three-day trip to Seoul on Saturday.
Biegun said last week the United States will be more lenient in enforcing its blanket ban on US citizens' travel to the totalitarian state when dealing with aid workers, a goodwill gesture as Trump seeks a fresh summit.
The Trump administration has generally refused to let US aid groups operate in North Korea, seeking to both maximise pressure on Pyongyang and ensure the safety of Americans.
Biegun also said in Seoul last week Washington was willing to discuss trust-building initiatives with Pyongyang.Senior transport officials from Russia, China and Mongolia as well as several foreign ambassadors to South Korea will attend Wednesday's ceremony, the South's Unification Ministry said.