The first cargo train providing regular service across the border between the two Koreas in more than a half-century left Tuesday for the North. The 12-car train carrying construction materials will cross through the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula on its journey to the North Korean border city of Kaesong, where the two Koreas operate a joint industrial zone. It was to cross back later Tuesday.
The service is one of the tangible results of an October summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun that outlined a series of joint projects. It comes months after the two sides conducted a one-time test run of passenger trains on two reconnected tracks on the western and eastern sides of the peninsula.
The cargo train will make a 10-mile round trip every weekday to North Korea.
It remains unclear whether regular passenger train service will start anytime soon, but one of the train's engineers was hopeful Tuesday.
"I expect a day will come when South Koreans visit North Korean tourist attractions freely by train," Shin Jang-chul, whose parents are from what is now North Korea, told reporters before departing.
South Korea hopes the inter-Korean railway will ultimately be linked through North Korea to Russia's Trans-Siberian railroad and allow an overland route connecting the peninsula to Europe — significantly cutting delivery times for freight that now requires sea transport.
The cargo rail service is likely to give a further boost to the sprawling Kaesong complex, which marries South Korean technology and management expertise with North Korea's cheap labor.
Currently, 64 South Korean companies operate factories there, employing about 21,600 North Korean workers and producing a range of goods including watches, clothing and shoes.
South Korea hopes the Kaesong project will encourage isolated North Korea to reform its centrally controlled economy and eventually open up to the outside world.
The rail lines between the Koreas were severed shortly after the outbreak of the 1950 Korean War. The conflict ended in a 1953 cease-fire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty, leaving the sides technically at war.
Already, dozens of cars, trucks and buses regularly cross the border between the two Koreas via reconnected roads both to the Kaesong complex and also to a tourism resort at North Korea's Diamond Mountain.
The transport links between North and South were reconnected after the first-ever summit between leaders of the divided nation in 2000.