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Wednesday, 5 February, 2003, 10:34 GMT
First Korean border crossing opens
A convoy of North Korean buses crosses into South Korean territory to take the South Koreans back to the North
A convoy of officials made the inaugural journey
The two Koreas have re-opened their land border for the first time in half a century, despite continuing anxiety about the North's nuclear programme.

About 100 South Korean tourism officials passed through the heavily fortified frontier by bus on Wednesday, travelling to the scenic Mount Kumgang tourist resort, some 30 kilometres (18 miles) to the north.

The opening of the first of a set of planned overland links came as the US made its strongest pledge yet to hold direct talks with the North to resolve the nuclear crisis.

North Korea says that the only way forward is for face-to-face talks with Washington, without pre-conditions.

Historic crossing

Buses carrying around 100 officials from the South Korean company Hyundai and invited guests snaked from Kosung on the South's east coast for a 50-minute journey along a dirt road towards Mount Kumgang.

The 10 buses were escorted by a South Korea military jeep as far as the border.

The jeep then pulled over to allow the buses to make the historic crossing, and a military official from the US-led United Nations Command, which enforces the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War, followed their progress on the other side of the border through binoculars.

If the pilot visit is a success, tours will officially begin next week.

The road is the first of four planned overland routes between the two sides to be completed. A parallel rail link on the east, and a rail and road link on the west are still under construction.

Diplomacy

The links are a key part of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of economic co-operation with the Stalinist state.

Of course we're going to have direct talks with North Korea

US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage

Seoul has been urging the US to pursue diplomacy rather than sanctions over the current nuclear crisis.

US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on Tuesday gave a strong assurance that direct talks with Pyongyang would take place.

"Of course we're going to have direct talks with North Korea. There's no question about it," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But Mr Armitage said that the consultations would only take place when Washington was confident that it had built a "strong international platform" from which to end North Korea's nuclear programme.

He also warned that North Korea's reported moves toward restarting a plutonium reprocessing facility could enable it to build four to six nuclear weapons within months.

Despite Washington's assurances that it has no plans to invade North Korea, it has announced that is considering strengthening its military forces in the Pacific Ocean as a deterrent against Pyongyang.

US officials said the reinforcements would help signal that a possible war with Iraq was not distracting the US.

But the commander of the 37,000 US forces in South Korea, General Leon LaPorte, stressed on Tuesday that any deployment would be made in conjunction with Seoul.

Economic co-operation

Some analysts believe the nuclear stand-off is simply a blackmailing tactic by the North to obtain more aid for the impoverished nation.

CRISIS CHRONOLOGY
16 Oct: US announces that N Korea has acknowledged secret nuclear programme
14 Nov: Oil shipments to N Korea halted
22 Dec: N Korea removes monitoring devices at Yongbyon nuclear plant
31 Dec: UN nuclear inspectors forced to leave North Korea
10 Jan: N Korea pulls out of anti-nuclear treaty
4 Feb: US says it might reinforce troops in Pacific

In easing the North's economic plight, Hyundai has played a key role. It has hitherto organised cruises to the North by boat, but they have lost the company money.

Hyundai hopes the cheaper overland trip will attract more tourists.

But its role in inter-Korean co-operation has not been without controversy.

The company became embroiled in a scandal last week when government auditors revealed that a Hyundai affiliate had sent nearly $200 million to North Korea just before the 2000 inter-Korean summit.

The company said the money was used to finance its business projects in the North; opposition lawmakers allege the money was a pay-off for the summit.

Members of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party have called on President Kim Dae-jung to make a public statement, while opposition politicians are calling for an independent counsel to investigate the fund transfers.


Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

TALKING POINT
See also:

03 Feb 03 | Asia-Pacific
12 Sep 02 | Asia-Pacific
20 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
10 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
08 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
12 Feb 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
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