In a meeting with US Ambassador Harry Harris on Tuesday, South Korea’s Unification Minister Lee In-young called for an upgrade to the two countries’ joint “working group” on matters related to North Korea.
Lee said the operation and functions of the working group should be revamped in a way that “facilitates the development of inter-Korean relations and Korean Peninsula peace policy.” He added that it was time for “Working Group Version 2.0.”
Despite his choice of the euphemistic word “upgrade,” Lee made no secret of his wish to reduce the role of the consultative mechanism, which was set up in 2018 to coordinate Seoul and Washington’s approaches to the North’s denuclearization, sanctions against the recalcitrant regime and inter-Korean projects.
“Although the working group has received positive feedback on one hand for its effective discussions on sanctions, I would like to mention that there was criticism that it has served as a hindrance to inter-Korean relations,” he said.
Pyongyang has complained that the consultative channel between the allies has blocked progress on cross-border exchanges and cooperation. In a June statement, Kim Yo-jong, the increasingly powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, called it a yoke put on Seoul for the sake of US interests.
Her statement has prompted pro-North Korean organizations and left-leaning lawmakers in the South to call for the disbandment of the working group.
Lee’s remarks were seen as affirming that President Moon Jae-in’s administration, which is preoccupied with inter-Korean reconciliation, is ready to push for some selected cross-border projects independently of the consultative framework.
Last week Moon appointed Choi Jong-kun, a presidential secretary for peace planning, as vice foreign minister. Some observers say the motive behind the appointment was to get the ministry to be more assertive within the working group about the need to ease sanctions against the North.
Not surprisingly, the US has reacted negatively, though not in an overt manner, to the Moon administration’s attempt to dilute the role of the consultative mechanism.
In response to Lee’s suggestion, Harris said the US wants to find ways to support inter-Korean cooperation through the working group, since it “plays an important role in creating a more secure and stable environment.” He added that he looks forward to understanding in more detail the “parameters of Working Group 2.0.”
Asked by a South Korean news agency Tuesday to comment on Lee’s proposed changes to the working group, a US State Department spokesperson just said Washington and Seoul coordinate regularly on how to deal with the North.
It is a misperception that the working group has acted as a roadblock to closer inter-Korean cooperation. The truth is that Pyongyang’s insistence on sanctions relief and other concessions without dismantling its nuclear arsenal has blocked progress on inter-Korean reconciliation.
North Korea is now believed to have as many as 60 nuclear bombs and the world’s third-largest stockpile of chemical agents -- an estimated 5,000 tons, according to a report released last month by the US Army. Pyongyang is unlikely to abandon these weapons, which it believes are essential to the survival of the isolated regime.
The North has ignored all proposals made so far by the Moon administration, which it sees as far from satisfactory.
The working group has served as an efficient mechanism for preventing unnecessary confusion between the allies by clarifying whether Seoul’s offers would violate the international sanctions regime.
The North is certain to continue to reject whatever “creative” proposals the Moon administration makes without being checked by the working group, unless they bring bulk cash to the impoverished regime like the inter-Korean industrial complex did before it was shut down in 2016.
The Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said Wednesday that the communist state should adhere to the principle of “self-reliance” even as it is struggling with flood damage, the coronavirus pandemic and international sanctions. Last week, Kim Jong-un said the North should reject any outside help despite serious damage from recent heavy rains.
If the Moon government attempts to reopen the joint industrial park and push for other massive projects with the North in violation of international sanctions, it risks undermining the Seoul-Washington alliance.
It needs to be cool-headed in its approach toward Pyongyang, instead of taking issue with a well-functioning consultative mechanism between the allies.