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Survey of North’s roads scheduled for weekend

Dec 20,2018
South Korean officials and experts will begin surveying roads on North Korea’s eastern coast starting Friday, a Seoul government official said Wednesday.

The survey, which follows a joint survey of North Korean railways that concluded on Monday, will be conducted with North Korean officials for three days, according to the official.

Both surveys were conducted ahead of an upcoming ceremony to break ground on a project to modernize North Korea’s railways and roads, and connect them to South Korea. The ceremony is scheduled for Dec. 26 at Panmun Station in Kaesong, the North’s border town near the demilitarized zone.

Analysts say the road and railway surveys have been rushed so the groundbreaking ceremony could take place this year. Controversy continues to surround the ceremony itself, since international sanctions currently in place forbid the transfer of building materials to the North.

The government has tried to dispel such worries by saying the ceremony will largely serve a symbolic purpose, with President Moon Jae-in describing it as a “launching ceremony” earlier this month. “Groundbreaking” was seen to connote the building of something, which suggests a violation of sanctions.

The ceremony’s date of Dec. 26 was selected in part to fulfill an agreement between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their third summit in Pyongyang last September in which they agreed to hold such an event before the end of the year.

Nonetheless, both the timing and brief duration of the road survey are raising doubts about its ability to properly assess the condition of the North’s infrastructure.

“The roads are covered in snow during the winter, and there will be difficulty in conducting a proper on-site inspection in those conditions,” said a former government official familiar with inter-Korean projects. “The survey should not be just a formality for the groundbreaking ceremony.”

The official added that since the rail and road project with the North is such a key element of the Moon administration’s grand plan to connect South Korea to the wider Asian landmass, the process should be undertaken with thorough preparation. “Only with this can the government earn public support for the project,” he said.

A survey of the North’s roads on the eastern coast - the final leg of the joint review process - was subject to multiple delays this month due to differences of opinion between negotiators on the two sides over its scope and methods.

“The North already has railway tracks, and there is also a highway linking Kaesong to Pyongyang, so we had no problem deciding the subject of those inspections,” another government official involved with the process said. “But the road linking Wonsan to Mount Kumgang has both a highway and a regular road, so we had minor disagreements over which to review.” The official did not clarify which road will be subject to surveying this weekend.

Other Unification Ministry officials added that they could not yet reveal the subject of ongoing inter-Korean negotiations, though one official said the road to be surveyed will likely be a 100 kilometer (62 mile) stretch from Wonsan to Mount Kumgang.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]