Regular cargo train service has resumed between the divided Koreas for the first time in more than half a century. South Korea plans to send tons of supplies into North Korea by rail on a daily basis. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from the train departure point in the South Korean city of Paju, officials in Seoul hope the trains will one day also carry passengers.
The 12-car freight train, decorated with multi-colored flowers, pulled up early Tuesday morning here at Dorasan station - its final stop in South Korea before crossing the military demarcation line to North Korea. Its cargo was mainly heavy stones, to be used for repairing the impoverished North's broken down roads and infrastructure.
Lee Chul, president of Korea's National Railroad, urged members of the crew to take extra care on this day - because they had a very special mission.
Tuesday's train journey of about 20 kilometers into the North, then back again, marks the start of the first regular freight train service between the two Koreas in at least 57 years.
The two sides remain technically at war, following North Korea's 1950 invasion of the South. A temporary armistice halted fighting in 1953. North-South ties have warmed since a historic 2000 summit.
The new train route is one of the first concrete results of a followup summit this October between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
One of the main purposes of the cargo route is to supply a South Korean built and managed industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong. The South's Roh administration describes the Kaesong project as a crown jewel of its engagement policy with the North, where more than 20-thousand North Korean workers make simple consumer goods for South Korean employers.
Speaking to reporters before departure, Kim Jae-kyun, one of the train conductors, echoed what South Korean officials say is the longer-range goal of the rail route. He says right now, it is only freight trains that are crossing. But soon, he says, he hopes they will be passenger trains - and that the human exchange will let reunification come more quickly.
Renewed North-South train traffic also has potential economic benefits. Experts say South Korean exporters could save significant outlays on shipping, if they could send goods to China, Russia and Europe using rail routes that pass through the North.