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North officials return to Kaesong

Partial walking back of last week’s pullout may be tied to Trump
Mar 26,2019
이미지뷰
South Korean officials working at the inter-Korean liaison office, including its deputy chief officer Kim Chang-su, front, pass through customs on their way to the North’s border town of Kaesong Monday morning. Some North Korean officials returned to work at the office Monday despite pulling out only three days earlier. [NEWS1]
North Korea on Monday re-dispatched officials to the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong just three days after withdrawing them all, according to the South’s Unification Ministry, which welcomed Pyongyang’s move to keep the communication channel alive.

About four or five North Korean officials were working in the office on Monday. That was around half the normal workforce before Friday’s order from “higher-ups” for everyone to leave. It remains unclear what the reduced number of North Korean officials means for regular operations of the office, but a senior Unification Ministry official said that the communication channel between the two Koreas has been restored to its original state.

South Korea dispatched its regular number of personnel - a total of 64 officials - to the office Monday morning expecting an empty building, but found some North Korean officials working according to what they said was “a regular schedule.” The head of the North’s liaison delegation was not present, but the chief communications officer was, and took part in regular morning and afternoon conferences with his South Korean counterpart.

“Our side worked a regular schedule [over the weekend] and were awaiting the North’s rapid return, and it looks like the North has responded to these factors,” a ministry official said, adding that regular operations between the two sides will continue, which includes planning for video-based reunions of families separated during the Korean War.

It is possible that the return of the North’s officials could be a reaction to an announcement made by U.S. President Donald Trump via Twitter on Friday in which he pre-emptively canceled new sanctions on Pyongyang.

While Trump’s notice had officials in Washington scratching their heads due to its abruptness, it may have signaled goodwill to the North that dialogue remains a viable option with the United States.

For Seoul, which in recent days found itself hard pressed to choose sides in a protracted deadlock between Pyongyang and Washington, the preservation of its main communication channel with the North may be a welcome validation of its role as a mediator between the two countries, whose disagreement on North Korean denuclearization led to the collapse of a second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 27 to 28.

On Sunday, the North upped pressure on the South in an editorial published in its state media to take its side over that of the United States.

“What has South Korea gained from generations of collaboration with the United States?” asked the op-ed on the North’s propaganda website Uriminzokkiri. “Foreign powers cannot be more important than one’s own nation, and only seek to pursue their own interests. [The South] must stoically face reality and make the right decision.”

Claiming the United States was interfering with the establishment of peace on the peninsula and dragging down inter-Korean economic cooperation, the essay departed from the North’s softened tone towards Seoul over the last year to attack it for taking a “pitiful” stance in alignment with Washington.

For the Moon Jae-in administration - which has a major stake in keeping North Korea engaged in diplomacy - such pronouncements from the North and a dialup in its aggression following the summit sparked concerns that a year’s worth of reconciliation could dissolve and revert the peninsula back to a state of tension.

In an attempt to bridge the gap, South Korean officials actively sought to engage the United States in an effort to persuade Washington to compromise, only to expose growing fault lines in the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

An attempt by Seoul to hold a South Korea-U.S. foreign ministers’ meeting earlier this month was reportedly rebuffed by Washington, where officials allegedly found fault with President Moon’s call to resume economic re-engagement with Pyongyang in a March 1st address.

According to a senior diplomatic source in Washington, another factor in U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s refusal to meet with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha was Washington’s discontent with the Blue House’s interpretation of a phone call between Trump and Moon following the Hanoi summit. In an official statement on the conversation released on Feb. 28, the Blue House announced Trump had asked Moon to play an active, mediating role in negotiations. But according to another source familiar with the White House’s position, what Trump really told Moon in the phone call was that the South should convince North Korea to accept the United States’ proposal of a “big deal.”

The disagreement over a “big” or “small deal,” or an all-in-one denuclearization package demanded by the United States versus a tit-for-tat approach favored by the North, is believed to have been the sticking point that ultimately led Trump to walk out of his summit with North Korean leader Kim in Hanoi. South Korea has not officially expressed a preference for either option, but Moon has pushed for partial sanctions relief for the North in terms of calling for the resumption of inter-Korean economic cooperation in the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tour destination.

The proposal was reportedly met with ridicule in Washington. Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon reportedly also told an associate recently that the White House was “just bubbling up” with anger in regard to South Korea’s recent posture.

In spite of these developments, the South’s presidential office remains steadfast in its optimism for future negotiations, with a Blue House senior official on Monday maintaining that the situation has not changed. “North Korea and the United States have the same objective but with differences in their strategic outlook,” the official said. “We are in the position of moving forward by persuading both sides.”

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, KIM HYUN-KI [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]