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[Herald Interview] Assembly panel chief Song suggests Trump invite NK leader’s sister to US

Kim Yo-jong may be key to breakthrough in stalled Washington-Pyongyang talks, head of parliamentary unification committee says

Rep. Song Young-gil of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office at the National Assembly in Seoul on Wednesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Rep. Song Young-gil of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office at the National Assembly in Seoul on Wednesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

US President Donald Trump could try for a breakthrough in the stalemated talks with North Korea by inviting the sister of the North’s leader Kim Jong-un to Washington, a senior Seoul politician versed in North Korean affairs has suggested.

Rep. Song Young-gil, who chairs the South Korean parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, said an official invitation from Trump may be what Kim’s younger sister Yo-jong meant in her recent bewildering remarks about her desire to watch recordings of the July Fourth celebrations in the US.

On July 10, the North’s state media quoted Kim Yo-jong as saying that she wanted to obtain a DVD of a US Independence Day celebration if possible, and she had gotten permission from her brother to do so. The remarks came after she downplayed the possibility of a third summit between her brother and Trump.

“(With that remark) she may have been hinting that she wanted to visit the US and deliver the North Korean leader’s message of good luck to President Trump (for the presidential election),” Rep. Song said during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office at the National Assembly in Seoul on Wednesday.

He added that Yo-jong, despite being in her late 20s, is increasingly the one holding the key to the North’s external relations, with the full confidence of her brother.

Song, who is a five-term lawmaker and belongs to the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, said Yo-jong is key to a possible third Trump-Kim summit.

“It will be possible if Yo-jong meets the US president and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and they confirm there’s trust between the two leaders and if they yield an advanced agreement,” he said.

Opening liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington would be a symbolic move that the US could make to guarantee that it would not invade North Korea, he went on.

“Seeing the American flag flying in Pyongyang is something that the North could not accept. But I think it is viable now. We still have time to see that happening before the US presidential election in November.”

North Korea and the US have not returned to the negotiating table since their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2018 failed to bridge their differences on denuclearization and sanctions relief. Trump and Kim had a brief encounter at a border town between the South and North in June last year.

The deadlocked Washington-Pyongyang relations have strained President Moon Jae-in’s peace initiative. Against this backdrop, the ruling Democratic Party has renewed its push for signing a declaration with North Korea to formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War, which was halted only with an armistice.

“An end-of-war declaration is a political proclamation. It doesn’t carry a huge meaning but still will help to create a political environment for the North to move toward giving up its nuclear weapons,” he said.

“The North Korean leader wants a political environment that he can be lauded for pursuing denuclearization by Pyongyang.”

Song and other lawmakers on the committee will work on supporting nongovernmental organizations that have been facing setbacks in providing humanitarian aid and carrying out relief activities in North Korea due to international sanctions imposed against the regime.

Although the UN sanctions don’t cover humanitarian actions, strict interpretations of the restrictions have been impeding relief groups to ship equipment and make transactions with Pyongyang.

Plans, drawn up by the government, civic and religious groups, to send medicine and build a hospital in Pyongyang, among other measures, have been thwarted due to a ban on the shipment of metal objects.

Song will help them receive exemptions to UN sanctions on the North, he said.

“The Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee will hold a dialogue with the members of UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea to explain the situation North Korea is facing, like a food crisis,” he said.

He called on the government to be more independent when handling issues related to North Korea, criticizing that ministries rely on the opinion of Washington even when not necessary.

“My assertion is that we have to collaborate with the US when needed but we don’t have to get approval from the US for every single issue that we can decide by ourselves,” he said.

There has been growing criticism here that monthly meetings of working-level officials between South Korea and the US have been hampering Seoul’s efforts to improve inter-Korean relations. The bilateral meeting was regularized in order to beef up the allies’ coordination on North Korea’s denuclearization and corresponding US measures in 2018.

On the issue of how much Seoul should pay for some 28,500 US troops stationed here, Song offered a clear view.

South Korea has no room to make any offer higher than the one it made already -- a 13 percent hike from the previous level.

Talks on the defense cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement, have been deadlocked for several months, as the two countries struggle to narrow the difference on the cost that Seoul should pay and the validity period of the agreement. Their last SMA deal expired on Dec. 31 2019. Washington wants Seoul to contribute $1.3 billion a year to support the troops, an increase of about 50 percent from the previous year, while Seoul proposes a 13 percent increase.

“The US should change its mind. We cannot retreat from the offer we made,” he said, adding that Pompeo and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper had virtually agreed on the number.

If they fail to ink a new deal, Seoul can only provide land for US troops without bearing any share of other costs as stipulated in the Status of Forces Agreement signed by the two sides in 1966, he argued.

“We already offered them land for Camp Humphreys, which occupies over 14.6 million square meters, didn’t we?” he said. The military base, which consists of 513 buildings, is the largest of the US overseas. South Korea paid $10.7 billion -- 90 percent -- for the project.

By Park Han-na (