For the first time since the Korean peninsula was divided in 1945, commercial phone lines are connecting the North with the South. South Korea's government describes the links as another victory for Seoul's engagement strategy with the North. However, it acknowledges challenges ahead in getting the North to dispose of its nuclear weapons facilities.
North and South Korean officials formally inaugurated the first commercial phone line between their countries since 1945 Wednesday, in a ceremony at the North Korean border city of Kaesong.
The choice of city is significant: it is where the armistice was signed in the 1950-53 war between the communist North and the capitalist South. Seoul is also constructing a joint North-South industrial park there as part of its strategy of economic engagement with Pyongyang.
The two countries have spent the past three years negotiating and installing 300 fiber optic phone lines. The limited service will link Kaesong factory offices with parent companies in South Korea. It is managed by the publicly listed Korea Telecom Corporation.
South Unification Minister Chung Dong-young describes Kaesong as a vital testing area for peace on the peninsula.
"About 6,000 North Korean workers are working together with 600 South Korean engineers. The North Korean military has pulled back its forces eight miles from Kaesong in order to reconnect highways and railroads. We have removed barbed wire and landmines," he said. "In other words, we have made a peace corridor in the no-man's-land."
Mr. Chung says success in Kaesong will also enhance prospects for success in multinational talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Those talks are currently challenged by a dispute between North Korea and the United States.
The United States says it has evidence Pyongyang has been counterfeiting U.S. currency on a large scale to support its regime. North Korea denies that, and demands Washington remove economic sanctions it imposed on North Korean companies allegedly connected with the counterfeiting.
South Korean officials have not taken a public position on whether they support the U.S. counterfeiting allegations - but they say they have told North Korea they view the matter seriously.
South Korea says the counterfeiting dispute should be treated as a bilateral matter between North Korea and the United States - and should not be allowed to sidetrack the nuclear talks.
China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States have spent three years trying to persuade North Korea to live up to commitments to remain nuclear weapons-free. They hope to schedule a sixth round of talks early next year.