A South Korean train on the Imjingang railroad bridge near Imjingang Station in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea. Photo: AFP/Seung-il Ryu
A South Korean train on the Imjingang railroad bridge near Imjingang Station in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea. Photo: AFP/Seung-il Ryu

In a highly unusual development, it has been reported in South Korea that the US-led United Nations Command prevented a South Korean train from crossing the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea earlier this month.

The passage of an official South Korean train into North Korea is highly unusual and the incident raises questions over coordination between South Korea and the United States. It could also provide substantial propaganda fodder for North Korea.

In what may or may not be a related development on Friday, the presidential Blue House announced that South Korean President Moon Jae-in would be sending a special envoy to North Korean next week. The North and South have agreed to hold a summit in September, but dates have yet to be set.

The timing of Moon’s trip looks critical, given the disagreement between North Korea and the United States on how to get the denuclearization process underway. However, there are also concerns that a gap is widening between Seoul and Washington over North Korea policy.

Why was train given a red light?

The train incident happened on August 22, according to South Korean media. The train was reportedly carrying South Korean government officials on a trip designed to check North Korean rail conditions between the DMZ and Shinuiju, the North Korean city on the southern bank of the Yalu River, which forms the northern border with China.

However, the train was refused permission to cross the border by the UN Command, the military organization which led free-world forces in the Korean War and which today coordinates with the states which fought in the war, while overseeing the 1953 armistice.

“In coordination with the [South Korean] government, the UN Command respectfully declined the August 23 visit request for government officials to visit North Korea through the Transportation Corridor-West, while requesting more fidelity on the details of the proposed visit,” a message from the UN Command, sent to South Korean – but not foreign – reporters, read.

The head of the UN Command is the senior American soldier in South Korea, General Vincent Brooks. His deputy is Canadian. Brooks also leads the Combined Forces Command – which coordinates South Korean and US forces – and also commands the 28,500-strong US Forces Korea.

Speaking to foreign media earlier this month, Brooks stated his pride in helping to enable the April summit between Moon and Kim Jong Un in Panmunjom, in the DMZ, and the role played by the UN Command.  “The UN Command has been involved in enabling dialog,” Brooks said at the time.

“Anyone who crosses the [border] must coordinate with the UN Command. That function has been very important … so some of these other outcomes could come into effect.”

Although there is no train service between the Koreas, the issue rises at a time when South Korean President Moon Jae-in  is promoting the idea of reconnecting North-South rail lines within the year.  The South is also hoping to set up a liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong, just over the DMZ north of Seoul.

There have been concerns that the movement of South Korean office equipment might violate sanctions.

There have long been grand plans to link the South Korean road and rail network with the North’s – a move which would relink South Korea – a political island – with the Eurasian mainland. Related plans also exist to run gas pipelines from the Russian Far East through North Korea, into the South, and possibly across to Japan.

For political reasons, these plans, which date back to the “Sunshine Policy” of the Kim Dae-jung administration from 1998 to 2003, have never reached fruition.

South Korean sovereignty infringed?

A number of questions hang over the issue. Related US officials could not be reached by Asia Times for comment: Friday was a holiday for US Force Korea personnel. The South Korean government has also remained silent.

While the UNC message says August 23, South Korean media report that the incident in fact took place on August 22. And it is unclear why the train was halted. South Korean media cite unnamed sources saying that the visit had not been made with the customary 48-hours notice.

Alternatively – as indicated by the UNC message – the reason for the official visit may have been unclear, or  the officials may not have had a full inventory of the items aboard, so could not gain sanctions clearance.

Americans with close knowledge of cross-border issues expressed puzzlement.

“I was surprised by it; I am not sure what happened,” said Steve Tharp, a retired US Army colonel who served on the DMZ and has written books about it. “Maybe [the UN Command] got an order from above – I can’t see someone on the ground making that decision – so somebody, somewhere, is concerned about violations of the UN embargo.”

The incident could provide potent propaganda material for North Korea, which has long characterized South Korea as a “puppet state” of the US. The incident also offers plentiful fodder for those critical of the US military presence in the South, which some believe infringes on South Korean sovereignty.

The issue led to massive protests in 2002, after two South Korean schoolgirls were killed in a road accident by US troops, who could not, under a bilateral agreement between the two governments, be tried in a South Korean court.

Anti-Americanism is now dormant in South Korea, but there are concerns in conservative circles that it could be resurrected if major policy differences between Seoul and Washington become apparent.

The leading left-wing newspaper in South Korea, the Hankyoreh, headlined its story on the issue “Joint railway effort halted by excessive enforcement of sanctions.”

The newspaper noted how unusual it was for the UN Command to prevent South Koreans transiting the border. “In reality, the UN Command’s approval authority has been a formality, and the practice has been to substitute it with notification from the South Korean military,” the newspaper said, citing a source familiar with cross-border procedures.

Regarding the railway project, and the halting of the South Korean train, the source told the Hankyoreh. “The only conclusion you can reach is that the US government … wants to stop this project from going ahead.”

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