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Opening of liaison office faces obstacles

The opening of a South-North joint liaison office may be facing obstacles, with the latest reports of North Korea’s sanctions violations apparently heightening the US’ sensitivity toward the issue.

Seoul has been asking for US cooperation in granting an exemption for the establishment of the liaison office in the border town of Kaesong, which was a clause in the agreement reached between the leaders of the two Koreas in April, as part of efforts to foster cross-border communication and cooperation.

This photo taken on July 24 shows the unlighted Kaesong Industrial Complex on the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone, while the South Korean side of the border remains lighted. (Yonhap)
This photo taken on July 24 shows the unlighted Kaesong Industrial Complex on the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone, while the South Korean side of the border remains lighted. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification on Monday indicated that the US has yet to grant an exemption, despite Seoul’s hopes to open the office by the end of the month.

“The venue is currently undergoing repair works for its planned opening by the end of August,” ministry spokesperson Baik Tae-hyun said during a regular press briefing.

“We are closely consulting with the US on earning an exemption from the sanctions for cross-border transfers of materials needed for the repair.”

Baik added in the briefing that nothing has been set for the operation of the office and consultations with North Korea on the matter continue, referring to earlier local media reports claiming that the two Koreas agreed to open and start operation of the office on Aug. 17. The Seoul government is also seeking to designate the chief official overseeing the office as vice-ministerial level, according to the reports.

To operate the liaison office, a supply of oil would be needed to generate electricity for South Korean officials who stay in the town, requiring a waiver of UN sanctions.

Washington’s lack of cooperation on the liaison office is raising questions, as the United Nations Security Council already granted a partial waiver for a similar request from Seoul on the repair of venues for reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, situated on the North’s eastern slopes of Kumgangsan. The favor was also extended for the West Sea military communication line, which was fully restored last month after the South transferred necessary equipment for repair.

But experts say that with recent reports accusing North Korea of violating sanctions behind the US’ back coupled with the significance of the location of the liaison office, the US may be less willing to grant a favor as it has done for other projects.

“The US is being cautious because such an exemption could lead to the exemption of sanctions for the Kaesong industrial park, located in the same vicinity,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

The joint economic zone was shuttered by Seoul in 2016 due to North Korea’s relentless pursuit of its nuclear weapons program and allegations that the generated revenue was funding the program’s development.

The US State Department reiterated on Aug. 1 that it supports Seoul’s decision to shut down the complex in 2016 due to North Korea’s growing threats and blatant disregard for international sanctions.

Media reports released late Saturday, citing a confidential UN report, said that North Korea has not abandoned its nuclear and missile programs and actively continued illicit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal in 2018. The report came on the heels of news concerning Russia’s issuance of visas to North Korean workers and setting up joint ventures with North Korean companies.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Singapore on Saturday, reminded all nations to abide by UN Security Council resolutions, stressing the US would “take very seriously” any moves that detract from the common goal of bringing about the full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

US officials have stressed the sanctions would be lifted only if the full denuclearization of North Korea is achieved.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s state media called Monday for the US to lift sanctions, saying Pyongyang had demonstrated good faith by ending its nuclear weapons testing and handing over the remains of US troops killed in the Korean War.

By Jung Min-kyung (

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