North and South Korea broke ground Wednesday on an ambitious project to modernise North Korean railways and roads and connect them with the South, but without progress in nuclear negotiations, trains won't be crossing the border anytime soon.
The optimistic tone of Wednesday's ceremony, however, did little to dismiss the fact that actual construction on the project, as well as any other inter-Korean economic initiatives, remains effectively blocked by worldwide sanctions in place against the North due to its past nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
"But given the absence of actual construction, the North will keep pressing the South to make it happen despite sanctions, in line with Kim's efforts to shore up his regime", he added.
The Seoul government received United Nations approval to conduct their survey of northern railways in November and marked the first time a South Korean train traveled on North Korean tracks.
"The groundbreaking ceremony is meaningful in that it demonstrates the Koreas' willingness to actively cooperate on the modernisation and connection project of their railways and roads", the South Korean transport ministry said in a statement carried by Yonhap news agency.
A nine-car special train carrying around 100 South Koreans, including officials and five people born in the North, was seen leaving Seoul railway station early in the morning for the North's border city of Kaesong.
Speaking at the event, the North's Vice Railroad Minister Kim Yun Hyok called for an "unwavering determination to stand against headwinds" that could threaten the project. But major economic initiatives have been stalled by the lack of progress on denuclearising the North.
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A team of nearly 100 officials from the South, including the transport and reunification ministers, took a two-hour train ride to attend the ceremony.
Near the platform, a small group of around 10 protesters held banners denouncing the North's leader as a murderous dictator and condemning the transport linkage as aimed at communising the whole Korean peninsula.
After his remarks, about a dozen delegates from both the North and the South stood along the railroad and pulled yellow levers to link up the railway tracks in a symbolic gesture.
In an apparent attempt to lead the North to the negotiating table, US President Donald Trump once again said he looked forward to a second summit with Kim in a Christmas Eve tweet.
Both then proceeded to co-sign the sleeper, which included messages marking the event and highlighting the cooperation between the two Koreas on the railway and road project.
However, Washington is insisting that North Korea give up its entire nuclear arsenal first before sanctions are lifted later - an idea that Pyongyang has balked at.
The highly symbolic meeting came weeks after the two countries conducted a joint survey of sections of the North's rail network that could one day provide direct services to the South.
Sanctions ban the importation of any construction material into North Korea, and also would forbid any investment in a project that would improve North Korea's infrastructure.