Grow­ing split in Seoul over North Ko­rea

The Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT & FEATURES - • By HYONHEE SHIN

SEOUL (Reuters) – When Seoul was pre­par­ing to open a li­ai­son of­fice in the North Korean city of Kaesong this sum­mer af­ter a decade of vir­tu­ally no con­tact with its long­time en­emy, South Korean of­fi­cials had heated de­bates over whether they should seek ap­proval from Wash­ing­ton.

Some top aides to Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in stressed it was an is­sue for the two Koreas alone and there was no need to in­volve their US ally, two peo­ple with knowl­edge of the sit­u­a­tion told Reuters.

But to the sur­prise of sev­eral of­fi­cials at the meet­ing, Uni­fi­ca­tion Min­is­ter Cho My­oung­gyon ar­gued Wash­ing­ton must be con­sulted be­cause Seoul’s plans might run afoul of sanc­tions im­posed on North Ko­rea over its nu­clear weapons pro­gram.

Two dozen coun­tries, in­clud­ing Bri­tain, Ger­many and Swe­den al­ready have em­bassies in Py­ongyang, and other of­fi­cials saw the pro­posed li­ai­son of­fice as a far lower-level of con­tact with the North.

And they cer­tainly did not ex­pect Cho to be a lead­ing ad­vo­cate of strict en­force­ment of sanc­tions. Cho was Moon’s per­sonal choice to head the min­istry, whose prime mis­sion is to fos­ter rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, co­op­er­a­tion and even­tual re­uni­fi­ca­tion with the North.

Cho, whose 30-year pub­lic ser­vice his­tory has been in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to re­uni­fi­ca­tion, was even sacked from the min­istry in 2008 over his “dovish” stance to­ward Py­ongyang.

At the sug­ges­tion of Cho and se­nior diplo­mats, Seoul ul­ti­mately sought US con­sent be­fore open­ing the of­fice in Septem­ber, one of the sources said.

All the sources spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity due to the sen­si­tiv­ity of the mat­ter.

Cho de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle, but a se­nior of­fi­cial at the Uni­fi­ca­tion Min­istry said it was aware of crit­i­cisms of Cho.

“In­ter-Korean ties are unique in their na­ture, but it’s been dif­fi­cult, and there’s North Ko­rea’s du­plic­ity. It’s a dilemma we face, or our fate,” the of­fi­cial said, ask­ing not to be named be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the is­sue.



The pre­vi­ously un­re­ported de­bate among Moon’s top of­fi­cials il­lus­trates a grow­ing di­vide within South Ko­rea over how to progress re­la­tions with the North while keep­ing Wash­ing­ton on side.

Some cor­ners of the ad­min­is­tra­tion ar­gue Seoul can’t af­ford to be seen veer­ing from the US-led sanc­tions and pres­sure cam­paign un­til Py­ongyang gives up its nu­clear weapons pro­gram, while oth­ers feel closer in­ter-Korean ties can help ex­pe­dite the stalled diplo­matic process, sev­eral of­fi­cials close to the sit­u­a­tion say.

“If the in­ter­nal rift leads to mov­ing too quickly with the North without suf­fi­cient US con­sul­ta­tions, it could pose a set­back to not only the nu­clear talks but also the al­liance and in­ter-Korean re­la­tions,” said Shin Beom-chul, a se­nior fel­low at the Asan In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies in Seoul.

Af­ter the in­ter-Korean thaw gave way to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion ef­forts be­tween North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ear­lier this year, Trump asked Moon to be “chief ne­go­tia­tor” be­tween the two.

That task has be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult as Wash­ing­ton and Py­ongyang blame each other for the fal­ter­ing nu­clear talks.

US of­fi­cials in­sist pun­ish­ing sanc­tions must re­main un­til North Ko­rea com­pletely de­nu­cle­arizes. North Ko­rea says it has al­ready made con­ces­sions by dis­man­tling key fa­cil­i­ties and Wash­ing­ton must re­cip­ro­cate by eas­ing sanc­tions and declar­ing an end to the 1950-1953 Korean War.

“Un­like other ad­vis­ers, Min­is­ter Cho has balanced his staunch de­sire for peace with an un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance of re­tain­ing a strong South Ko­rea-US align­ment,” said Pa­trick Cronin of the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity, an Asia ex­pert in close touch with both US and South Korean of­fi­cials.

“Some al­liance dis­cord is in­evitable and not wor­ri­some. What would be wor­ri­some would be a clear rup­ture in South Kore­aUS ap­proaches for manag­ing North Ko­rea.”

The pres­i­den­tial Blue House de­clined to com­ment, but Moon told re­porters on Mon­day the view that there was dis­cord be­tween South Ko­rea and the United States was “ground­less” be­cause there is no dif­fer­ence in the two coun­tries’ po­si­tions on the North’s de­nu­cle­ariza­tion.


A third source fa­mil­iar with the pres­i­den­tial of­fice’s think­ing said there was mount­ing frus­tra­tion with Cho within the Blue House and even in­side the Uni­fi­ca­tion Min­istry amid con­cerns he wor­ried too much about US views.

“What the pres­i­dent would want from him as the uni­fi­ca­tion min­is­ter is to come up with bold ideas to make his pet ini­tia­tives hap­pen,” the source said.

Dur­ing three sum­mits this year, Moon and Kim agreed to re-link rail­ways and roads, and when con­di­tions are met, restart the joint fac­tory park in Kaesong and tours to the North’s Mount Kum­gang re­sort that have been sus­pended for years.

None of those plans has made much head­way, ei­ther be­cause sanc­tions ban them out­right, or as in the case of Kaesong, Seoul took time to try to con­vince skep­ti­cal US of­fi­cials that cross-bor­der pro­jects wouldn’t un­der­mine sanc­tions.

North Ko­rea it­self has been an un­pre­dictable part­ner. Dis­cus­sions through the Kaesong of­fice have been few and far be­tween, with Py­ongyang’s ne­go­tia­tors of­ten fail­ing to show up for sched­uled weekly meet­ings without no­tice, Uni­fi­ca­tion Min­istry of­fi­cials say.

Even so, the Kaesong move has caused ten­sions with Wash­ing­ton.

US of­fi­cials told Seoul that South Ko­rea’s ex­pla­na­tions on the Kaesong of­fice were not “sat­is­fac­tory,” the South’s For­eign Min­is­ter Kang Kyung-wha told a par­lia­men­tary hear­ing in Au­gust.

Wash­ing­ton was also caught off guard when a group of busi­ness­men who used to op­er­ate fac­to­ries in the now-closed Kaesong in­dus­trial park were in­vited for the open­ing cer­e­mony of the of­fice, a diplo­matic source in Seoul said.

The al­lies launched a work­ing group last month led by their nu­clear en­voys to co­or­di­nate North Korean pol­icy. It was borne out of US de­sire to “keep in­ter-Korean re­la­tions in check,” the source said.

Asked about the Kaesong of­fice, a US State Depart­ment of­fi­cial said: “We ex­pect all mem­ber states to fully im­ple­ment UN sanc­tions, in­clud­ing sec­toral goods banned un­der UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion, and ex­pect all na­tions to take their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties se­ri­ously to help end [North Ko­rea’s] il­le­gal nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams.”

An­other State of­fi­cial said the United States en­dorsed April’s in­ter-Korean sum­mit agree­ment dur­ing its own sum­mit with North Ko­rea “be­cause progress on in­ter-Korean re­la­tions must hap­pen in lock­step with progress on de­nu­cle­ariza­tion.”

Last month, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo met Cho in Wash­ing­ton, say­ing in­ter-Korean co­op­er­a­tion and progress on nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions should “re­main aligned.”

“We have made clear to the Repub­lic of Ko­rea that we do want to make sure that peace on the penin­sula and the de­nu­cle­ariza­tion of North Ko­rea aren’t lag­ging be­hind the in­crease in the amount of in­ter-re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two Koreas,” he told a news brief­ing a few days af­ter the meet­ing.


Even as he faced pres­sure from Wash­ing­ton to hold a tough line, Cho was be­ing crit­i­cized for drag­ging his feet on rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

In May, the North called off planned talks with the South led by Cho in protest against US-South Korean air com­bat ex­er­cises. When the meet­ing even­tu­ally took place, Cho’s coun­ter­part, Ri Son Gwon, openly blamed Cho for hav­ing caused a “grave sit­u­a­tion” that re­sulted in the can­cel­la­tion of the talks.

At the Kaesong of­fice open­ing, fac­tory own­ers pressed Cho to re­open the com­plex and said they were dis­mayed at the Uni­fi­ca­tion Min­istry for re­peat­edly re­ject­ing re­quests to visit the bor­der city to check on equip­ment and fa­cil­i­ties idled since the 2016 shut­down.

“We’ve ex­pressed, di­rectly and in­di­rectly, our com­plaint that the min­is­ter may be too luke­warm about our re­quests, even though al­low­ing the trip has noth­ing to do with sanc­tions,” said Shin Han-yong, who chairs a group of busi­ness­men with plants in Kaesong.

Cho re­cently told the par­lia­ment the de­lays are due to sched­ul­ing is­sues with the North, adding the min­istry “needs more time to ex­plain the over­all cir­cum­stances” to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Shin, the ex­pert at Asan, warned any move to un­der­mine sanc­tions may ex­pose South Korean com­pa­nies to risks of pun­ish­ment.

Af­ter Moon and Kim’s sum­mit in Py­ongyang in Septem­ber, a se­nior US Trea­sury of­fi­cial called com­pli­ance of­fi­cers at seven South Korean banks to warn them that re­sum­ing fi­nan­cial co­op­er­a­tion with North Ko­rea “does not align with US poli­cies” and the banks must com­ply with UN and US fi­nan­cial sanc­tions, ac­cord­ing to a South Korean reg­u­la­tory doc­u­ment.

“Re­al­is­ti­cally we have no op­tion but to con­sider US po­si­tions, as the top pri­or­ity is the North’s de­nu­cle­ariza­tion and the United States has the big­gest lever­age on that,” said Kim Hyung-suk, who served as vice uni­fi­ca­tion min­is­ter un­til last year.

“Without progress on the nu­clear is­sues, there would be con­straints at some point in sus­tain­ing in­ter-Korean ties. And Min­is­ter Cho knows that.”

(Ahn Young-joon/Reuters)

SOUTH KOREAN Uni­fi­ca­tion Min­is­ter Cho My­oung-gyon walks to board a plane to leave for Py­ongyang, North Ko­rea, to par­tic­i­pate in the in­ter-Korean bas­ket­ball matches in July.

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