South Korea opened a road across its heavily militarized border with North Korea on Wednesday, the first such connection between the countries in more than five decades.
The South also said it wanted to take further steps toward reconciliation despite the communist state's defiance over its nuclear program.
Meanwhile, North Korea said Wednesday that it has reactivated its nuclear facilities and is going ahead with their operation "on a normal footing."
The communist country will use the facilities to produce electricity "at the present stage," an unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said. His remarks were carried by the official KCNA news agency.
While hoping for a peaceful solution to the standoff over the North's nuclear ambitions, U.S. ally South Korea fears that the tension might escalate into an armed conflict on the volatile peninsula.
In a conciliatory move on Wednesday, a group of 107 South Korean tourism officials and business people traveled to a scenic mountain resort in the North on a recently built cross-border road. The 10 buses moved slowly along the narrow dirt road to the northern side as snow fell.
South Korea's Hyundai business group started a money-losing cruise to the Diamond Mountain resort in 1998. The company hopes the cheaper overland trip will attract more South Korean tourists.
The road is the first overland route linking the two Koreas since they were divided in 1945. The 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not in a peace treaty, and the two countries are technically still at war. Their border is the world's most heavily fortified.
The road was one of several cooperation projects agreed upon at a historic inter-Korean summit in 2000. Wednesday's trip was hoped to pave the way for organized tours by South Korean tourists.
In parliament, South Korea's No. 2 leader said that while Seoul would not tolerate the North's alleged atomic weapons program, it wanted to move ahead with reconciliation efforts.
"We can never tolerate North Korea's nuclear weapons development, which is a threat to our national security and world peace, but tension should not be allowed to keep rising on the Korean Peninsula," Prime Minister Kim Suk-soo said in a speech to the National Assembly.
South Korea, the prime minister said, intends to expand several joint projects before outgoing President Kim Dae-jung steps down on Feb. 25. Those projects include cross-border railways, tourism and an industrial park.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has given senators the Bush administration's strongest assurance to date that Washington intends to have a direct dialogue with North Korea.
In Washington on Tuesday, Armitage testified before a congressional hearing: "Of course we're going to have direct talks with the North Koreans."
It was unclear whether his comments marked a change in U.S. policy. Washington has previously demanded that North Korea give up its nuclear ambitions before talks.
Meanwhile, the top U.S. military commander in South Korea stressed that the militaries of the United States and South Korea must cooperate to cope with the nuclear standoff.
"The combined forces of the ROK-US alliance are highly trained, well-equipped and superbly led," Gen. Leon LaPorte said, adding the South Koreans would be consulted about any possible U.S. reinforcements. The ROK, or the Republic of Korea, is South Korea's official name.
The United States keeps 37,000 soldiers in South Korea.
U.S. officials in Washington say Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is considering sending an aircraft carrier to the waters off the Korean Peninsula and adding bombers in Guam.
The moves are intended to deter the North from provocations during any U.S. war with Iraq, Pentagon officials said.
In a dispatch monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency, the North's official news agency, KCNA, said the reported U.S. reinforcements were "a serious development that can only be seen on the eve of war," and that "our people and military will react with strong self-defense measures."
North Korea's media routinely churn out anti-U.S. invective, but it has become more frequent and intense since the nuclear dispute erupted in October, when U.S. officials said the North had admitted having a nuclear program in violation of a 1994 pact.
As punishment, the United States and its allies suspended oil shipments to North Korea in December. The North then took steps to restart a nuclear reactor, expelled U.N. monitors and withdrew from a global nuclear arms control treaty.