MUNSAN, South Korea - The trains that rumbled through the bitter frontier dividing the Korean peninsula yesterday for a one-time test run of restored rail links represent a symbolic stride for reconciliation between North and South Korea.
But any further moves to defuse tension on the heavily armed border will likely come up against the same types of delays, backtracking and broken promises that have plagued all other attempts at rapprochement with the world's most reclusive regime.
The North took nearly seven years before allowing the test run of trains agreed to in June 2000 between leader Kim Jong Il and then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. There is no telling how long it could take before people can line up to buy tickets for trips to the North and destinations beyond. It is unlikely that North Korea will allow its citizens to make the trip south.
"If it took seven years just to be able to reconnect the lines and conduct the tests, it could take even longer than that for trains to run across the country," said Peter Beck, head of the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group think tank.
Kim Jong Il is concerned about outside influences loosening his grip on power as he faces growing pressure to change his society. Even key ally China has repeatedly sought to show visiting North Koreans the lessons it has learned and financial rewards it has reaped from reforming its economy.
In an indication of how Kim sought to minimize the significance of yesterday's test, the North sent only 50 people on each of two trains that ran on the restored tracks on the eastern and western sides of the peninsula - half of what was called for under an earlier proposal for 100 people from each side. The South still sent 100 officials and other citizens on each train.
Despite its reluctance, Pyongyang also realizes that supporters of reconciliation in the South are reeling from a series of perceived failures, with their engagement policies under constant challenge because of the North's refusal to step back from producing nuclear bombs.
The Korean War ended in a 1953 cease-fire that has never been replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war.
Allowing the very limited rail test was a way to throw the South a bone without sacrificing much.
The tests also enabled the North to secure an agreement to receive $86 million of raw materials to make clothes, shoes and soap to help its economy. In exchange, the South received rights to explore for mineral resources in the North - but it is unclear what value that will have.
For its part, South Korea will be forced to restrain itself from embracing its neighbor too quickly without progress on the nuclear issue - which remains deadlocked over an unrelated financial dispute over $25 million in frozen funds that North Korea insists it get back before disarming.
Seoul has repeatedly promised Washington that its efforts under the "sunshine policy" to foster reform in the North will not get ahead of progress on the nuclear standoff - which reached a climax in October when Pyongyang conducted its first underground nuclear test.
But the only fireworks that rang out yesterday across the Demilitarized Zone were bursts of colored smoke sent into the sky as the South Korean train headed north.
from AP on the Koreans' tenuous