N. Korea liaison shows US-S. Korea fissures

SEOUL • South Korea’s plan to set up a liaison office at an industrial park it sponsors in North Korea is underscoring differences between Seoul and Washington over the pace of rapprochement with Kim Jong-un’s regime.

The inter-Korean office, slated to open this month at the Gaeseong complex, might violate United Nations and US sanctions, South Korea’s Chosun newspaper reported yesterday, citing an unidentified American official.

A State Department spokesperson later told Bloomberg News that improvements in ties between the two Koreas must occur “in lockstep” with progress on eliminating Kim’s nuclear arsenal, without saying if the office would violate sanctions.

The liaison office is among several initiatives supported by South Korean President Moon Jae-in — including reunions this week between families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War — as he attempts to build on his landmark April agreement with Kim.

Nuclear talks have slowed as North Korea pushes for more tangible steps to improve ties by South Korea and the US as a condition of weapons concessions.

Moon spokesman Kim Eui-keum yesterday rejected the suggestion that establishing the liaison office would violate sanctions. He said the facility was among the provisions affirmed by US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader at their own summit in June in Singapore.

No Gains

“It’s wrong to view the issue of the inter-Korean liaison office as a violation of sanctions,” Kim Eui-keum told reporters in Seoul. “This is not to provide North Korea with any economic gains.”

The issue has emerged as the region prepares for a new diplomatic flurry aimed at resolving the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear weapons, with Chinese President Xi Jinping considering a trip to Pyongyang next month, the Straits Times of Singapore reported on Saturday, without citing anyone.

Meanwhile, Moon planned his own visit to the North Korean capital — the first by a South Korean leader in 11 years.

Moon must strike a difficult balance with Kim, amid US pressure to maintain sanctions against the regime. At same time, a commentary published yesterday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency criticised what it said was a lack of consistency by South Korea and arguing that peace could only be achieved “without the help of outside forces”.

Slow Down

“Moon needs to slow down his push for improving inter-Korean relations, because the relationship between South Korea and the US will be on the line,” said Song Jae-ik, who teaches national defence studies at Hanyang University in Seoul. Moon’s efforts to relax South Korean pressure “can’t go hand in hand with a US administration hesitant to lift their sanctions”, Song said.

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Trump’s point man for North Korea, has pushed for Kim to accept a clear time frame for abandoning his nuclear weapons. North Korea has rejected the approach, with state-run media lambasting the US’ “pressure diplomacy” and saying it’s relying on “outdated gangster-like logic”.

Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, said during an appearance on Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week” that Pompeo would “soon” return to North Korea. Bolton said the Trump administration expected Kim to meet with Pompeo, who didn’t get an audience with the North Korean leader during his previous visit last month.

“This is to fulfil the commitment that Kim made in Singapore, that he had previously made to the South Koreans, and to move on with the process of denuclearisation,” Bolton said.

In another possible sign of differing expectations, Bolton said that the White House expected North Korea to denuclearise within “one year”.

The day before Trump’s meeting with Kim, Moon told senior advisors that the process might take “one year or two years, or even longer”.

“We cannot depend entirely on the talks between the US and North Korea to solve the issue of hostility and North Korea’s nuclear programme,” Moon said at the time. “South-North talks have to be successfully carried out, as well.” — Bloomberg