SEOUL, South Korea – North and South Korea agreed Friday to launch rail service across their heavily armed border for the first time in more than half a century, a move symbolizing the growing reconciliation between the two sides.
The train service, limited to freight, will begin Dec. 11 on a 16-mile-long track to a joint industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong. It marks one of the first tangible results of a summit last month between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, the second ever such meeting.
Since the first summit between the Koreas in 2000, the countries have moved to set aside decades of animosity and have dramatically increased economic ties to the point that the South is the North's No. 2 trading partner behind its communist ally China.
Friday's agreement, reached after the first talks between the countries' prime ministers since 1992, also calls for the South to start building shipyards in North Korea and repairing a major highway and a railroad in the impoverished country next year.
Roh expressed satisfaction with the agreement, saying economic cooperation is the "best means" to advance unification.
"Unless we realize an economically equal relationship, the road to unification cannot but be very slow," Roh told the North Korean delegation at a lunch he hosted in the presidential Blue House.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is firmly committed to carrying out the summit accord that he has said "should not end up an empty piece of paper," North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong Il told Roh.
The two sides also agreed Friday to set up a joint fishing zone around their disputed western sea border next year as part of efforts to prevent a repeat of the deadly naval clashes that took place the area in 1999 and 2002.
The move is part of a broader project to turn the disputed area into a "peace and cooperation zone," which would also create a special economic zone on the North's southwestern coast.
North Korea's military would have to approve security arrangements for the train service and the joint fishing zone. The defense ministers of the two sides are expected to discuss the matters when they hold talks in Pyongyang later this month, said South Korea's Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung.
The two sides also agreed to hold prime ministers' talks every six months, with the next meeting to be held in the first half of next year in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
But the agreements come just months before President Roh's administration leaves office in February, casting doubt on whether the deal will be carried out.
Conservative opposition candidates who take a more critical view of the North's regime are leading opinion polls ahead of the Dec. 19 presidential vote.
The railway opening is part of measures to give new impetus to the joint venture industrial park, where about two dozen South Korean-run factories employ some 20,000 North Koreans.
The two Koreas conducted a one-time test run on the track and another reconnected rail line in May, but no regular service has yet started.
The North also agreed Friday to allow South Koreans to use the Internet and mobile phones inside the Kaesong area.
Internet use in North Korea is normally limited to elite officials, part of the regime's policies to prevent normal citizens from receiving any information beyond the steady diet of nationalist propaganda that dominates state-controlled media.
Visitors to North Korea are required to hand over foreign mobile phones upon entry, which are returned to them when they leave.
South Korea hopes the inter-Korean railway will ultimately be linked to Russia's Trans-Siberian railroad and allow an overland route connecting the peninsula to Europe — significantly cutting delivery times for freight that now requires sea transport.
Other points of Friday's agreement include promoting cooperation in the farming, resources development and medical sectors, as well as more reunions of families separated between North and South.
The high-level talks come amid progress in international efforts to rid North Korea of its nuclear programs.
The two Koreas fought the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, which means that the sides are still technically at war. Their relations have warmed significantly since the first-ever summit in 2000, although the reconciliation process has often been overshadowed by the standoff over the North's nuclear weapons programs.