North Korea backs out of train tests across border

North Korea on Wednesday abruptly canceled groundbreaking test runs of trains across its highly guarded border with South Korea, citing an atmosphere of confrontation and war.

South Korean Vice Unification Minister Shin Eon-sang described the last-minute, unilateral delay of trial runs scheduled for Thursday as "very regrettable" and said South Korea would take necessary steps, but didn't elaborate.

The test runs along rebuilt railroads would have been the first time that trains crossed the inter-Korean border in more than a half-century, and were a high-profile element of efforts at detente between North and South Korea since a pivotal summit of their leaders in 2000.

Train service between the Koreas was halted in June 1951.

"The responsibility for the collapse of scheduled trial runs lies in North Korea," Shin said. "The government urges North Korea to take sincere steps to ensure that test runs of trains can be made at the earliest date."

North Korean official Pak Jong Song informed the South earlier Wednesday that "it is impossible to conduct the trial operation" as scheduled because of the failure of the two Koreas to reach a military agreement on the trains' operations, the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported.

Pak, head of the North's group on the rail and road issue, also criticized "pro-U.S. ultra-right conservative forces" in the South for "pushing the situation in Korea to an extreme phase of confrontation and war," in a message sent to his South Korean counterpart.

"We will wait for an appropriate time to come for the trial train operation between the North and the South after a military guarantee is provided by the military authorities of both sides and the situation in the South returns to normal," KCNA quoted him as saying.

Paik Hak-soon, a research fellow at South Korea's independent Sejong Institute, partly attributed the delay to tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, and said the North's military slams the brake on inter-Korean relations, reports the AP.

I.L.