With the release of thousands of colorful balloons and firecrackers spewing plumes of rainbow-colored smoke in the clear autumn skies, South Korea began rebuilding a railway across the world's most heavily armed border yesterday.
All overland routes were severed by war 50 years ago, but the two sides have come a long way since the historic inter-Korean summit in June. As evidenced by athletes from the two Koreas walking together in the Olympics opening ceremony Friday, the countries are pursuing peace.
Re-linking a 15-mile stretch across the border will eventually allow a continuous rail link to Europe, bolstering shipping from the Koreas and Japan.
"Buds of trust will sprout from the spots where mines are removed, and they will bloom into the flower of peaceful unification," said South Korean President Kim Dae Jung at the inaugural ceremony.
The military will begin clearing land mines, tank traps, and electrified fences immediately. The new track is scheduled to be laid by September 2001 at a shared cost of $130 million.
The reconnected line will first lead to Kaesong, North Korea, where the Hyundai conglomerate plans to build a $5 billion industrial park. Combining South Korean technology and capital with North Korean natural resources and labor, Hyundai hopes to build "a Korean Shenzhen," referring to the Chinese boomtown across the border from Hong Kong.
The rail line continues through the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and on to China, where it links to the Trans-China railway, and on to Europe. By a sea-rail combination, freight now takes about 26 days to reach the Polish border from Seoul, and costs $2,100 per container. The government estimates that a direct rail line will cut this to 16 days and $1,300.
To make Korea's new "iron Silk Road" complete, President Kim has even suggested building a Japan-Korea undersea tunnel. With a large new airport opening near Seoul, officials hope Korea will become a transportation and logistics hub of northeast Asia.
Economists are reluctant to estimate the benefits of a project that has barely begun, but any easing of North Korea's economic collapse will benefit its 21 million people. But lots of details, like when people will be able to travel to the North, need to be worked out. "We're going to have to wait and see," says Kim Se Chan, a Ministry of Construction and Transportation official.
Defense ministers of the two Koreas will meet for the first time Sept. 25-26. In October, North Korea is dispatching a team to study South Korea's economy.
Meanwhile, critics say the South Korean government has not thoroughly researched the security risks of the reconnection. Indeed, in order to finish quickly, civil engineers are designing the railway as they build it.
"I'm not saying it is going to be dangerous ... [but] this government doesn't seem interested in counting all the beans," says Lee Dong Bok, a former negotiator with North Korea.
The opposition Grand National Party says the rail and highways could be used by North Korea for an invasion of Seoul. GNP leader Lee Hoi Chang refused to attend yesterday's emotional ceremony, where high officials wrote prayers on railroad ties. "It doesn't guarantee for any free passage of the people. We just regard it as a showy event," says a GNP spokesman.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society