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North renews contact with groups in South

May 16,2019
North Korea has reportedly reopened contact with South Korean private organizations, ending more than a month’s suspension of exchanges with non-governmental entities in the South.

According to sources from a range of different private organizations in the South devoted to inter-Korean relations, the Pyongyang branch office of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation (KCRC), a pro-unification civic group that is mainly based in Seoul, reached out on Wednesday to a number of private entities in the South through a fax message that proposed meetings in Shenyang, China.

The civic groups that reportedly received the message include the June 15 All Korean Committee, Movement for One Korea and the main branch of the KCRC in Seoul, led by the youngest son of former President Kim Dae-jung, Kim Hong-gul.

This appears to be the first time the North directly contacted private organizations from the South since top officials in Pyongyang reportedly issued an order banning officials and businessmen from discussing inter-Korean projects with South Koreans around April 2.

The ban on contact with the South, according to sources from private South Korean entities at the time, was apparently put into effect after the collapse of the U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, leading to a halt in joint initiatives that included humanitarian relief efforts.

Many cross-border initiatives that groups in the South had ambitiously pursued with the North were indefinitely delayed, like exchanges between health and sanitation experts between the two countries.

According to the Unification Ministry last week, the number of inter-Korean exchanges - both private and governmental - have decreased significantly since last year, but a few meetings have been taking place between the two countries outside of the Korean Peninsula.

The timing of this latest outreach from the North suggests it could be related to the South Korean government’s formalization of plans to provide food aid to North Korea, which sought relief from the UN in March due to a serious food crisis brought on by unfavorable weather conditions and a bad harvest last year.

Despite a series of public criticisms leveled at the South by Pyongyang’s state media, Seoul has determined to donate humanitarian aid to the North in line with recommendations made by the World Food Programme. By meeting South Korean civic groups - some of whose constituents include government officials and politicians - the North could be trying to gauge public opinion in the South in regard to food aid and continued exchanges.

Yet official contacts between the two countries, primarily via the North’s United Front Department (UFD) - the country’s leading agency tasked with inter-Korean relations - are frozen. Late last month, Pyongyang replaced the UFD’s long-serving director, Kim Yong-chol, with a virtually unknown figure, believed to be punishment for the failure of the Hanoi summit. Since then, Pyongyang has tested short-range missiles and printed anger-filled propaganda pieces in the state media.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO and SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]