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Korean Trains Cross North-South Border for First Time in 56 Years

North and South Korea have sent trains across their heavily armed border for the first time in 56 years, marking a new milestone in the two countries' on-again, off-again efforts to improve relations. VOA Correspondent Kurt Achin reports from the South Korean departure station, just outside of Seoul.

The test runs were short, but by the time the two trains had each crossed the border between North and South Korea and returned, they had made history.

The trains started from either side of the border late Thursday morning, and returned Thursday afternoon. Each carried 100 South Koreans and 50 North Koreans.

Shortly before the test of the cross-border rail system began, a high-level North Korean delegation was welcomed to the Munsan train station here in South Korea.

Musicians played what has come to be an anthem for inter-Korean relations: "Pangapsimnida", or "nice to see you again." It was 56 years - since 1951, the year after the Korean War began - since a train had last crossed the stretch of land that divides the two Koreas.

Work the railway was started a few months after their first and only summit meeting, in June of 2000, ushered in an era of wary and intermittent cooperation. Technically, the Korean War has never ended: an armistice halted the fighting in 1953, but no peace treaty has ever been signed.

South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung said Thursday's test involved much more than just a train ride. He says two arteries that carry the same blood have been reconnected, even though they were once severed. As a result, he says, the heart of the Korean peninsula can beat once again.

Kwon Ho Ung, a North Korean senior cabinet councilor, said the process of reconciliation should not be allowed to be "derailed."

Kwon says even at this moment, the Koreas face challenges from factions "inside and outside" the country that oppose Korean unification.

North Korea has long blamed the United States for the Korean divide. It justifies its construction of nuclear weapons by pointing to what it calls U.S. "hostility."

The U.S. maintains about 28,000 troops in South Korea to deter a repeat of Pyongyang's 1950 invasion of the South, but Washington says it has no intention of attacking the North.

Fireworks and fanfare reflected the overall tone of Thursday's event - but not everyone was celebrating.

Several minor scuffles broke out between police and about 20 protesters trying to reach the ceremony venue. Many of the protesters were in their 70s and 80s, and represented two separate groups: Korean war veterans shouting slogans against North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and family members of South Koreans believed to have been abducted by the North.

Seoul believes about 400 South Koreans have been abducted by the North over the past half century. However, Seoul keeps discussion of the issue low key, so as not to impede the slowly improving relations.

Although Thursday's test run was mainly symbolic, normal rail traffic will be important for the massive economic assistance South Korea plans for the impoverished North.

Paik Hak-soon, a scholar on inter-Korean relations at the Sejong institute in Seoul, says rail connections make it much easier to send bulk items over the border.

"Raw materials and capital goods, in the way of making soap, and shoes, and garments," said Paik. "[The test] is very strong evidence that they are in such dire need of those daily necessities, in addition to food."

South Korea could also benefit from the rail link. If Pyongyang allows it, rail shipments of cargo to and from China could cut South Korean shipping costs.