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The U.S.-North Korea standoff over Pyongyang's denuclearization is casting a shadow over South Korean President Moon Jae-in's ambitious cross-border rail project as a frustrated Washington is suspected of trying to impede progress.
The United Nations Command said Thursday it denied Seoul permission to enter North Korea for a joint field study related to a rail link project, affirming reports by The Hankyoreh newspaper.
The development signals the difficulty Moon will face as he tries to pursue economic engagement with the North while also maintaining unity with Washington.
The reports said South Korea's government applied on Aug. 23 to send a locomotive with six passenger cars in order to test the Gyeongui Line, which extends from Seoul to the North Korean city of Sinuiju along the Chinese border through Pyongyang.
The Korean War's cease-fire agreement grants the U.N. Command the right to approve all people and goods crossing the military border. That the command is headed by the the commander of the U.S. armed forces in South Korea has raised suspicion that Washington was behind the rejection.
U.S. President Donald Trump appears increasingly frustrated with the stalled talks. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was scheduled to visit North Korea to facilitate the delayed disarmament negotiations, but Trump called off the trip on Aug. 24 in frustration with the lack of progress. The president also blamed China on Twitter for the inaction.
Shelving the inter-Korean transport links will deliver a blow to Moon's vision of an East Asian railway community, which he proposed in an Aug.15 speech commemorating the end of Japanese colonial rule on the peninsula.
During the colonial era, the Korean Peninsula's north and south were connected by rail. The main lines were Gyeongui, running along the country's western edge, and the Donghae Line traveling the east coast to Russia.
Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to link the severed rail lines as part of a 1992 accord. The plan was approved by former President Kim Dae-jung, with construction under President Roh Moo-hyun's administration progressing as far as test runs in 2007. The project was halted soon after, however, as relations between the two countries deteriorated under new administrations.
Moon breathed new life into the plan by including it in his new economic integration roadmap for the Korean Peninsula, which he has shared with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The blueprint designates the area along the Donghae Line as an energy and resources belt, while the area along the Gyeongui Line becomes a transportation, logistics and industrial region. The demilitarized zone, a no man's land that has become a haven for nature and wildlife, was branded an environmental and tourism belt.
North Korea's eastern coast, which extends to Russia, is a potential site for energy cooperation. Seoul and Moscow agreed at a summit in June to study the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea after Pyongyang vowed to denuclearize earlier that month. The North and South also aim for joint exploration of plentiful underground resources like magnesite.
The peninsula's western coast, meanwhile, is lined with large consumer centers like Pyongyang and Seoul. The rail would link the South Korean capital with the Kaesong industrial complex, Pyongyang and Sinuiju on the Chinese border.
By linking its railways and highways with the North's, South Korea hopes to connect with Europe through Russia and China. Moon estimates 170 trillion won ($153 billion) in potential benefits over the next 30 years when adding renewed economic cooperation in places like the Mount Kumgang tourist region and Kaesong industrial complex as well as resource exploration.
South Korea also was forced to delay the reopening of its diplomatic liaison office in Kaesong, after agreeing to do so at a summit in April.
Pyongyang is growing frustrated with Seoul, which is forced to consider Washington's wishes and observe international sanctions. North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in July that the South was wasting time by only working on low-cost projects like joint inspections, surveys and research.
Though the third inter-Korean summit is scheduled for September, Seoul will face difficulty answering Pyongyang's demands for greater economic cooperation as progress on denuclearization remains stalled. Moon, whose public approval ratings were once lifted by his mediation of the Trump-Kim summit, finds himself uncomfortably sandwiched by pressure from both the U.S. and North Korea.
This article first appeared on asia.nikkei.com
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