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North, South Korea Re-Establish Air Link - 2002-07-20

A North Korean passenger jet landed in South Korea Saturday, the first tentative step toward establishing an air link, despite recent tensions between the two rivals.

A Russian-built, 70-seat Tupelov plane, operated by North Korea's Air Koryo, landed at Yangyang Airport in eastern South Korea, carrying only the plane's 14-member crew.

The plane left an hour later, carrying eight more people, including construction workers and officials from the U.S.-led consortium, Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, called KEDO.

In January, KEDO and North Korea agreed to open an inter-Korean air route to help facilitate the building of two light-water nuclear reactors. In 1994, the United States promised to build the reactors in return for a freeze on the communist country's suspected nuclear program.

Officials say the new air route could be used on an irregular basis to transport workers and materials to the construction site from now on.

Saturday's flight was the first positive contact the two Koreas have had since a deadly naval battle four weeks ago. The skirmish, near their disputed western sea border, killed four South Korean sailors and an unknown number of North Koreans. Bitter accusations followed the incident, which both sides blame on each other. Analysts speculate that Saturday's flight is an attempt by the North to smooth relations, so that it can continue the course for the completion of nuclear reactors, needed to generate electricity. For years, the impoverished country has suffered massive power shortages, which have left many of its factories idle.

But consortium officials say the reactors probably will not be completed for several more years because of funding and other problems. They were supposed to have been operational in 2003.