SEOUL • A train carrying South Korean engineers and officials crossed into the North yesterday to begin a landmark joint survey to reconnect rail tracks between the two Koreas.
Linking up the railway systems was one of the agreements made earlier this year at a key meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South's President Moon Jae-in.
Yesterday's trip marked the first time in a decade that a train from the South entered North Korea.
TV footage showed a red, white and blue train - displaying a banner reading "Iron Horse is now running towards the era of peace and prosperity" - pulling away from the South's Dorasan Station, the nearest terminal from the western part of the inter-Korean border.
"This signals the start of co-prosperity of the North and the South by reconnecting railways," Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee said.
She added that the railway re-connection would help expand the country's "economic territory" to Eurasia by land, as the division of the Korean Peninsula has left the South geopolitically cut off from the continent for many decades.
The six-carriage train carried 28 South Koreans, including railway engineers and other personnel, as well as 55 tonnes of fuel and an electricity generator. There is also a water wagon for showers and laundry.
When it arrives at Panmun Station - the first North Korean terminal across the border - the six carriages will be linked up to a North Korean train, and the South Korean locomotive will return home.
The South Koreans and their Northern counterparts will live on the train, inspecting two railway lines for 18 days - one linking the North's southern-most Kaesong City to Sinuiju City near the Chinese border, and the other connecting Mount Kumgang near the inter-Korean border to Tumen River bordering Russia in the east.
They will travel some 2,600km on railway tracks together.
Before the Korean Peninsula was divided in 1948, there were two railway lines linking North and South - one in the west and the other in the east. As a gesture towards reconciliation, the two Koreas reconnected the western line in 2007, and limited numbers of freight trains transported materials and goods to and from the Seoul-invested Kaesong industrial zone in the North for about a year. But the line was later put out of service due to heightened tension over the North's nuclear development programme.
The current railway project had faced delays over concerns it could violate UN sanctions imposed on the North for its nuclear and missile programmes. But the UN Security Council granted an exemption for the joint study last week.
Seoul said the survey was aimed purely at gathering information on the state of the North's rail system, adding that actual restoration works would come only after consent from the United Nations.
The South's Unification Ministry has earmarked some 63.4 billion won (S$77 million) for next year on the assumption that it will take five years to repair and improve the two railway routes in the North.
Mr Kim, during a summit with Mr Moon in April, had said the North's railway infrastructure is "embarrassingly" dilapidated, praising the South's high-speed railway system. The North's rail tracks are in such disrepair that trains reportedly run at between 20kmh and 45kmh only.