North and South Korea Agree to Break Ground on Inter-Korean Railroad

North and South Korea continued their push for peace Monday with high-level talks that saw a host of agreements, including a plan by the rivals for a groundbreaking ceremony this year on an ambitious project to connect their railways and roads.

The agreements come amid unease in Washington over the speed of inter-Korean engagement. Many outsiders believe that U.S.-led efforts to rid the North of its nuclear-tipped missiles are lagging significantly behind the Koreas’ efforts to move past decades of bitter rivalry.

A series of weapons tests by the North last year, and an exchange of insults and threats between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had many on the Korean Peninsula fearing war. But there has since been a surprising peace initiative, with three inter-Korean summits and a June meeting in Singapore between Trump and Kim. Washington and Pyongyang are working on plans for a second such summit.

Still, there is widespread skepticism that the North will disarm. And, despite the proposed fanfare for the railway and road projects, the Koreas cannot move much further along without the lifting of international sanctions against North Korea, which isn’t likely to come before Pyongyang takes firmer steps toward relinquishing its nuclear weapons and missiles.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said the rivals also agreed Monday to hold general-level military talks soon to discuss reducing border tensions and setting up a joint military committee that’s meant to maintain communication and avoid crises and accidental clashes.

The Koreas also agreed to hold talks between sports officials in late October to discuss plans to send combined teams to the 2020 Summer Olympics and to make a push to co-host the 2032 Summer Games.

And the two countries will hold Red Cross talks in November to set up video-conference meetings between aging relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean War and potentially expand face-to-face reunions between them.

Monday’s talks at the border village of Panmunjom were aimed at finding ways to carry out peace agreements announced after a summit last month between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

At the summit, the third this year between Moon and Kim, the two leaders committed to reviving economic cooperation when possible, voicing optimism that international sanctions could end and allow such activity, and holding a groundbreaking ceremony by the end of the year on the project to connect their roads and railways.

The Koreas agreed Monday to hold the ceremony in late November or early December.

They also announced measures to reduce conventional military threats, such as creating buffer zones along their land and sea boundaries and a no-fly zone above the border, removing 11 front-line guard posts by December, and demining sections of the Demilitarized Zone.

Moon has described inter-Korean engagement as crucial to resolving the nuclear standoff and is eager to restart joint economic projects held back by sanctions if the larger nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea begin yielding results.

However, South Korea’s enthusiasm for engagement with its rival appears to have created discomfort with the United States, a key ally.

Moon’s government last week walked back a proposal to lift some of its unilateral sanctions against North Korea following Trump’s blunt retort that Seoul could “do nothing” without Washington’s approval.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha also said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed displeasure about the Koreas’ military agreements. Kang was not specific, but her comments fueled speculation that Washington wasn’t fully on board before Seoul signed the agreement.

Trump has encouraged U.S. allies to maintain sanctions on North Korea until it denuclearizes to maintain a campaign of pressure against Kim’s government.

SOURCE: The Associated Press