South Korean tourists watch a train running on the rail at the Imjingang Pavilion, north of Seoul, near the Demilitarized Zone. North and South Korea adopted a military agreement Friday enabling the first train crossing of their heavily armed border in more than a half-century, the South's Defense Ministry said. CLICK FOR LARGE
Ties That Bind
Railway connects North and South Korea
MUNSAN, South Korea » Low clouds and fog fittingly obscured the North Korean landscape, long an object of mystery, as tourists looked out from the Dora observatory north of Seoul. Not far away, the guide assured us, stood one of the monuments to growing North-South cooperation, the Kaesong industrial complex.
There, South Korean industrial might meets cheap North Korean labor to produce clothing, shoes, watches, jewelry, kitchenware and electronics for international export. Already, 22 South Korean companies employing 13,000 North Korean workers have set up shop at the site just across the Demilitarized Zone.
That fog might be lifting, figuratively, as the two nations move closer to opening a railway between Munsan and Kaesong and, to the east near the Sea of Japan, from Jejin across the DMZ to Kumgang Mountain.
Heavily restricted highways already connect those locales, but these would be the first trains to cross the border since the 1950-53 Korean War.
Military leaders from the two countries have signed off on a test run that could be conducted as early as Thursday if no complications arise.
Then again, the whole deal could collapse. That happened in May 2006, when North Korea abruptly and bafflingly backed away from the same scheduled trial runs.
EVER CAUTIOUS, South Korean officials and business leaders are proceeding with optimism -- even nurturing kindness, like siblings whose fundamental fondness trumps rivalry and personality quirks.
"We have arguments but we are still friends," says Ha-Jung "Dan" Byun, general manager for planning and foreign investor relations with Hyundai Asan Corp., which is developing Kaesong and the tourist attractions at Kumgang.
In fact, whether the issue is railways or nuclear disarmament, Seoul and Pyongyang behave like nothing so much as the brothers in the 1988 movie "Rain Man."
Tom Cruise as Charlie Babbitt has a hard-charging business agenda, but must slow down to accommodate his less sophisticated kin, an autistic savant.
Dustin Hoffman's character, Raymond, brings his own talents to the table, but has difficulty communicating and functioning in the wider world. Set in his ways, he buys underwear only from Kmart and never misses Judge Wapner on "The People's Court." He presumably would be comfortable wearing Kim Jong-il jumpsuits every day as long as he had his favorite videos and an occasional dance with a "sparkly" bar girl.
Yet Raymond is unpredictable -- even dangerous, as demonstrated when he tries to use the microwave.
NORTH KOREA HAS HAD ITS OWN misadventures with radiation, most notably its first nuclear test last October. Ballistic missile tests, the most recent last summer, also make its neighbors nervous.
So it was with great relief that the six-nation nuclear talks, which include the United States, Russia, Japan and China, reached an agreement in September 2005 under which North Korea would give up its nuclear programs in return for financial support and other incentives.
But North Korea abruptly backed away from the deal a month later after the U.S. Treasury took action against a bank in Macau, accusing it of laundering money for Pyongyang.
The long, ensuing stalemate ended Feb. 13, when North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon within 60 days and allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, it would receive shipments of heavy fuel oil and, in the longer term, a return to diplomatic normalization.
Yet the April 14 deadline passed with no action from North Korea, which was apparently hung up about $25 million still stuck in Macau's Banco Delta Asia.
It seemed incomprehensible that Pyongyang would let the deal sour over such a sum, worth far less than the fuel oil it stood to gain.
"I don't know what's going on," sighed Ambassador Chun Yung-woo, South Korea's special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, during a recent meeting with journalists in Seoul.
"North Koreans are slower than others in taking action," he added. "But the deal was struck. There is no question of reneging on the deal."
COURTESY VIVIAN SALAMA
Dorasan Station now ends the Gyeongui Line running north from Seoul toward North Korea. Once the already-completed railway opens up through the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea hopes it will hook up to the trans-China and trans-Siberia railroads to Moscow and Western Europe. CLICK FOR LARGE
CHUN SAID he does not believe the North Koreans were delaying the shut-down of Yongbyon to accumulate more nuclear material for weapons.
"We haven't heard the explanation," he said, but counseled patience because the potential gains of the Feb. 13 accord are so high. "This will liquidate the legacy of the Cold War and fundamentally reshape the geopolitical landscape of the region," he said.
What isn't needed, Chun said, is more saber rattling and inflammatory remarks along the lines of President Bush's "axis of evil" declaration in 2002.
"I think it must have been conveyed to the U.S. that using such rhetoric does not help," he said.
One gathers that the Koreas do not gladly suffer outside interference, even from the United Nations. In survey results released Thursday by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and WorldPublicOpinion.org, 55 percent of South Koreans said the U.N. Security Council should have no right to use armed force to prevent a non-nuclear country from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Those majority sentiments set South Korea apart from all 17 other nations polled except for one -- the Palestinian authority, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
So the railway test, if it happens, would mark an extraordinary milestone in North-South reconciliation.
But even if it doesn't, expect this at-times-dysfunctional brotherhood to continue its picaresque toward a brighter day.
Jim Borg, an assistant city editor at the Star-Bulletin, recently took part in the 2007 Korea-United States Journalism Exchange sponsored by the East-West Center.