World News

North and South Korea Get U.N.’s Go-Ahead to Study Joint Rail Project

Posted November 24, 2018 1:03 a.m. EST

SEOUL, South Korea — The U.N. Security Council has approved a plan by North and South Korea to conduct a joint field study on connecting their railways, exempting the project from the extensive sanctions it has imposed on the North over its nuclear weapons program, officials said Saturday.

During his three summit meetings this year with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has offered to help renovate North Korea’s decrepit railway system and link it with the South’s, dangling the project as one of the biggest economic benefits the North could expect should it denuclearize.

To whet the North’s appetite, South Korea offered to send a train and engineers across the border to conduct a joint field study on the conditions of the North Korean rail system. North Korea quickly accepted.

But plans to conduct the study were thwarted in August, and again last month, because of U.S. concerns that it might violate U.N. sanctions, which include severe limits on shipments of fuel and other goods to the North. South Korea would have to bring fuel and equipment into the North to conduct the study.

More broadly, the Trump administration did not want its South Korean ally to push ahead with inter-Korean projects too quickly without concrete progress on denuclearizing North Korea. Last month, President Donald Trump forced South Korea to walk back a proposal to lift some of its unilateral sanctions against North Korea, asserting that Seoul could “do nothing” without U.S. approval.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the allies needed to make sure that “we don’t talk past each other, that we don’t take an action or the South Koreans don’t take an action that the other is unaware of or hasn’t had a chance to comment on or provide their thoughts.”

“We do want to make sure that peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea aren’t lagging behind the increase in the amount of interrelationship between the two Koreas,” he said. “We view them as tandem, as moving forward together.”

The apparent discord raised fears of a rift in the seven-decade U.S.-South Korean alliance.

This week, the allies moved to dispel such concerns by launching a joint working group to coordinate their interactions with North Korea. Lee Do-hoon, a South Korean official who attended the group’s first meeting this week, later indicated that any misunderstanding between the allies about the joint field study had been removed, saying Washington had expressed strong support for it.

“As we pursue key projects between South and North Korea, we have maintained that we will do so within the framework of sanctions against the North and cooperate closely with the international community,” the South’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday after the Security Council exempted the railway field study from U.N. sanctions.

The council’s decision only covers the field study, however, and does not mean that South Korea is allowed to start the major investments that would be needed to renovate the North Korean railways. Washington insists, and Moon agrees, that such large investments can begin only after international sanctions are lifted.

Moon has been eager to improve ties with North Korea, opening the first inter-Korean liaison office in September and demolishing 11 military guard posts this month within the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. The North dismantled the same number of guard posts along the border. Moon has urged Washington to ease sanctions once North Korea takes significant steps toward giving up its nuclear arms. Doing so would encourage North Korea to speed up denuclearization, he says.

But there is deep concern in Washington that North Korea might renege on its commitment to denuclearize once sanctions are eased. So despite North Korea’s push for relief, Trump says Washington will keep “maximum” sanctions in place until the North denuclearizes.

Trump and Kim have agreed in principle to meet again to follow up on their first summit talks in Singapore in June, at which Kim made a vague promise to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in return for new relations with Washington.

But subsequent talks have stalled over the time and place of a second summit and over the details of how North Korea would disarm.

South Korea has long dreamed of building a trans-Korea railroad that could connect its trains to China and to the Trans-Siberian Railway. The North lies between the South and China, and such a rail connection would give the South a faster way to send exports that are now shipped by sea to China and Europe. It would also provide a shortcut for bringing in Russian oil and other natural resources.

But analysts say creating such a rail link would be an enormous task, requiring extensive confidence-building talks between the North and South and billions of dollars to renovate the North’s decrepit rail system, not to mention the lifting of international sanctions.

The two Koreas briefly connected short stretches of railway across their border in 2007, but further efforts to reconnect the systems were suspended as the countries’ relations soured over the North’s nuclear pursuits.