Inter Korean rail grinds to a halt

November 28, 2008 12:00 am

, SEOUL, November 28 – A cargo train once seen as a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation made its last trip across the border Friday before North Korea shuts down the service amid worsening ties with the South.

South Korean day-trippers also took a last look at the North after the communist state announced it was stopping their coach tour.

The bans are part of severe border restrictions that the North plans to enforce from next Monday. It says they are "the first step" in response to what it terms a confrontational policy by Seoul’s conservative government.

The North has also halved the number of South Korean workers permitted to travel to the joint industrial estate at Kaesong north of the border, Seoul’s unification ministry said.

"My heart is bleeding as the cross-border railway service is being cut off again like this," said Shin Jang-Chul before he drove the train towards the heavily fortified frontier.

"But I think this situation is only transitory," said Shin, who also drove the train when the service resumed in May 2007 for the first time in 56 years.

Regular services began last December on a 7.3 kilometre (4.6 mile) section of track. The daily cargo train has often run almost empty because of a lack of demand but South Korea has kept it going because of its symbolic value.

The North has announced the curbs because of conservative President Lee Myung-Bak’s failure to honour summit pacts that were reached with his liberal predecessors.

It says South Koreans working at two joint projects – the Mount Kumgang east coast resort and the Kaesong industrial estate – will be "selectively" expelled.

The unification ministry said the North had halved the number of South Korean workers permitted to travel to or stay in the estate to 2,000.

Some 35,000 North Koreans earning about 70 dollars a month work for 88 South Korean firms at Kaesong, producing items such as watches, clothes, shoes and kitchenware.

The North has indicated it does not want to shut down the estate but analysts believe this is on the cards if relations worsen further.

Unification Minister Kim Ha-Joong has called for talks to settle differences.

"We don’t know how long it will take (for the North to return to dialogue), but it’s time for us to wait," he told parliament.

The last group of 210 South Korean tourists left Friday on the day trip to Kaesong, a historic city near the industrial estate, tour operator Hyundai Asan said.

"My heart aches as we’ll be the last to see Kaesong. I hope inter-Korean relations will improve so that we’ll be able to go there again," Choi Heung-Dae, 55, told journalists.

Bus driver Ahn Kon-kuk, 60, has been making three or four trips a week to Kaesong since tours began in December last year. More than 111,000 people have taken the tour since then.

"I take pride in my work, as I believe I am contributing to inter-Korean exchanges and reconciliation. Now, I feel quite sad," Ahn said.

A decade-old separate tour programme to Mount Kumgang was suspended in July after North Korean soldiers shot dead a Seoul housewife who strayed into a restricted military zone.

The joint projects and tours began during a decade-long "sunshine" engagement policy which saw Seoul spend billions of dollars in the impoverished North.

Critics claimed the South got little in return, with the North even staging a nuclear test in 2006.

After taking office in February Lee changed tack and linked major economic aid to progress in denuclearisation, reform and openness in the North, enraging Pyongyang.


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