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First talks held at new liaison office

Oct 23,2018
The new joint liaison office in the North’s border city of Kaesong made its debut as a venue for inter-Korean negotiations on Monday, after South and North Korean officials discussed ways to promote forestry cooperation between the two countries.

Forestry officials from the two Koreas entered discussions at the liaison office on Monday morning to look for concrete ways to implement an agreement reached by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their summit in Pyongyang last month.

Discussions were to center on the issues of pine tree pest control and modernization of North Korea’s sapling farms, according to a press release from last week’s high-level talks between the two countries.

“These talks will focus on finding realistic ways to implement the Pyongyang Declaration,” said the South’s chief representative Park Jong-ho, a deputy minister of the Korea Forest Service, on Monday. “Since this is the second meeting [on forestry cooperation], we hope to produce visible and practical results.”

The North’s delegation was headed by Kim Song-jun, vice chief of the Forestry Bureau in the Ministry of Land and Environmental Protection, who represented the North in the last inter-Korean forestry discussions in July.

This is the first time the liaison office, which was opened in September as a direct full-time communication channel between the two Koreas, has been used as a conference venue for official talks. Housed in a building originally built for economic cooperation consultations in the now-closed Kaesong Industrial Complex, the liaison office has as its staff a total of 30 South Koreans, who work on a separate floor from their North Korean counterparts.

Two other meetings between the Koreas are scheduled for later this month, regarding disease prevention as well as a preliminary discussion about submitting a joint bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics.

Kim Chang-soo, South Korea’s deputy chief of the joint liaison office, told reporters Monday that in the future the office will work to host not only inter-governmental talks, but also meetings between private organizations in the South and North.

While economic exchanges are ruled out by domestic and international sanctions on North Korea, cooperation on forestry matters are relatively free from scrutiny and have been pursued by the two Koreas as a means to ramp up their rapport.

Deforestation is a major problem in North Korea, where much of the landscape is barren of woodlands and vegetation due to long-term logging. An economic collapse in the 1990s forced many people to cut down trees for firewood and create arable farmland. A report by the magazine Science & Diplomacy estimated that 40 percent of all forest in North Korea has been lost since 1985, based on satellite images. Land erosion and floods have been more frequent and intense as a result, and Pyongyang has been keen to restore the country’s damaged ecology through a number of programs.

In July, South Korea - which succeeded in reforesting much of its landscape in the past half century as a result of government-led efforts - agreed to help the North through methods like the transfer of tree-growing technologies. This was followed up by a joint field survey of a forested area near Mount Kumgang on the North’s eastern coast to examine the effects of pine tree diseases.

In the third inter-Korean summit in September, the two leaders agreed to actively pursue environmental cooperation in order to protect and restore the peninsula’s natural landscape, starting with joint work on forests.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]