South Korean President Moon Jae-in bids farewell to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after their summit in Panmunjeom truce villaige, just north of the de facto border with South Korea, May 26 2018. File photo: REUTERS
South Korean President Moon Jae-in bids farewell to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after their summit in Panmunjeom truce villaige, just north of the de facto border with South Korea, May 26 2018. File photo: REUTERS

Seoul — North and South Korea agreed on Thursday to hold a ceremonial groundbreaking later this month for a project to reconnect railways and roads across the divided peninsula, despite concerns of possible sanctions violations.

But the event on December 26 will not herald the start of actual work on the plans, which even if they go ahead will not see the border opened to unrestricted travel.

The South’s President Moon Jae-in has been pushing engagement with the nuclear-armed North to try to persuade it to give up its weapons, but talks between Pyongyang and Washington have stalled with the US demanding it make further moves before any sanctions relief is offered.

Connecting up the rail systems on either side of the Demilitarized Zone and refurbishing the North’s dilapidated tracks – a marked contrast to the South’s KTX high-speed lines  – was one of the steps agreed by Moon and the North’s leader Kim Jong Un earlier this year.

But the project has been delayed amid fear that it could violate UN sanctions imposed on the North over its nuclear and missile programmes.

Following talks with the North on Thursday, Seoul’s unification ministry said in a statement that the ceremony would be held on December 26 at Panmun Station – the first North Korean terminal across the border – in Kaesong.

About 100 people from each side will attend and the “North and South will continue discussions on detailed issues”, it added.

Earlier this month, South Korean officials and engineers belatedly began a joint study of the North’s tracks after the UN Security Council granted an exemption.

Seoul said the survey was purely aimed at gathering information on the current state of the North’s rail system and pledged that actual restoration works would come only after consent from the UN.

It is unclear whether the South needs to seek another UN exemption for the ceremony.

Before the Koreas were divided in 1948 there were two railway lines running down either side of the peninsula.

As a gesture towards reconciliation, the two 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 they went no further, and re-establishing the lines would be unlikely to enable Northerners to leave for the South, as Pyongyang imposes tight restrictions on freedom of movement for its citizens.