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Trains to cross inter-Korean border for first time in over 50 years

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South and North Korean trains will cross the heavily fortified inter-Korean border on Thursday (May 17) for the first time in more than half a century, in a highly symbolic move toward renewed reconciliation and increased economic ties.

A five-car South Korean train is scheduled to travel to the North and then return to its point of departure in the west of the peninsula, while a North Korean train will travel to the South along the east coast.

"The test runs will be the start of regular rail services between the two Koreas. I hope it will be the first step toward establishing a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula," Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung said in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow on Wednesday.

The two trains, each carrying 100 South Koreans and 50 North Koreans, are to cross the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) dividing the two Koreas between 12:10 p.m. and 12:20 p.m.

South and North Korea exchanged lists of passengers for the test runs at a joint economic management office in the North Korean border city of Gaeseong, the Unification Ministry said.

Distinguished South Korean passengers on the northbound train will include Unification Minister Lee, Vice Construction Minister Lee Chun-hee, former Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok and former Unification Minister Lim Dong-won, the main architect of the "sunshine" policy of engaging North Korea.

Construction Minister Lee Yong-sup and Vice Unification Minister Shin Un-sang will be among the 100 South Korean passengers on the southbound train from the North's Mount Geumgang Station, the ministry said.

"We think that there is agreement that if we're gonna achieve our goals both in inter-Korean reconciliation and six-party talks, it is essential that the U.S. and South Korea work together and coordinate our efforts to the maximum degree possible," Vershbow told reporters after his meeting with Lee.

In a key hurdle to implementation of its promised move toward nuclear dismantlement, North Korea has yet to withdraw its funds that were frozen at Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau. Authorities from the United States and Macau helped release the funds so they can be withdrawn, but North Korea insists that the funds be wired to the communist country through a normal financial transaction via banks in a third country.

In a breakthrough aid-for-disarmament deal struck in Beijing on Feb. 13, North Korea agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor and allow outside inspections within 60 days in return for energy assistance from the other participants in the six-party talks.

But the North missed the April 14 deadline without taking any action, citing a dispute over its $25 million frozen at the BDA, which was accused by the U.S. of helping launder money for the communist country.

As for Thursday's tests, in the western area, the train will depart from Munsan Station in the South for Gaeseong Station in the North on a 27.3-kilometer track, while the other train will leave Mount Geumgang Station in the North for the South's Jejin Station on a 25.5-kilometer track in the eastern area.

Before the train departure slated for 11:30 a.m., South and North Korea will hold a ceremony to mark the historic event at both Munsan and Mount Geumgang stations, officials said.

The reconnection of roads and train lines severed during the 1950-53 Korean War was one of the tangible inter-Korean rapprochement projects agreed upon following the historic summit between then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000.

South Korea hopes to use the restored railways to help North Korean workers commute to a joint industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Gaesong as well as to transport South Korean tourists to the North's scenic Mount Geumgang.

The Gyeongui (Seoul-Sinuiju) line cutting across the western section of the border was severed on June 12 in 1951, while the Donghae (East Coast) line crossing the eastern side was cut shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War. A set of parallel roads has been in use since 2005 for South Koreans traveling to the North.

South and North Korea completed radio tests between Dorasan Station in the South and Panmun Station in the North and between the South's Jejin Station and the North's Gamho Station. The stations are closest ones to the border on both sides.

In May 2006, North Korea abruptly called off the scheduled test runs, apparently under pressure from its hard-line military. The cancellation also led to the mothballing of an economic accord in which North Korea would receive $80 million worth of light industry raw materials from the South in return for its natural resources. North Korea's subsequent missile and nuclear weapons tests further clouded hopes of implementing the agreement.

In March, the two Koreas agreed to put humanitarian and economic inter-Korean projects back on track just days after North Korea promised to take the first steps toward its nuclear dismantlement in return for energy aid and other concessions from the other five countries at the six-party talks.

South and North Korea are still technically at war, as the Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

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