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Unification Ministry takes flak for relations

Oct 18,2019
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul on Thursday faced a barrage of questions from lawmakers on the faltering state of inter-Korean cooperation, highlighted by the spectator-less football match between the two Koreas in Pyongyang that took place Tuesday without being broadcast due to the North’s refusal to publicize the game.

Saying he felt “heavy responsibility” with regards to the qualifier for the 2022 FIFA World Cup not meeting public expectations, Kim admitted in a parliamentary audit of his ministry that political reasons had prevented the match from being shown to the South Korean public.

South Korea’s national football team traveled to Pyongyang to face off against the North at Kim Il-sung Stadium, and the match ended with a scoreless draw on Tuesday. North Korea denied all requests by foreign broadcasters and media to witness the game, and the match was played without a public audience.

The Unification Ministry’s spokesman Lee Sang-min said in a public briefing Wednesday that it was “inappropriate” to connect the proceedings of the match to the state of inter-Korean relations, but Kim appeared to acknowledge that the “lull in inter-Korean relations may have been reflected” in the North’s refusal to grant broadcasting rights for the game to foreign media or allow a South Korean cheerleading squad to travel to the event.

Thursday’s audit also dealt with a variety of inter-Korean projects that have come to a standstill after February, when North Korea drew back on contacting the South due to what it said was Seoul’s unwillingness to depart from the U.S.-led international sanctions regime.

Rep. Yoo Ki-june, a lawmaker of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, slammed the Unification Ministry for spending money on making bags for the rice aid Seoul had hoped to dispatch to the North in spite of Pyongyang’s refusal to take the assistance on July 24.

Kim replied that South Korea was continuing to discuss the matter with the World Food Programme (WFP), which would have been responsible for delivering the aid, but that the WFP has asked for patience in regards to the issue. He added, however, that other humanitarian assistance has been successfully delivered to the North, including some 11.4 billion won ($9.7 million) worth of items like tuberculosis medicine and baby formula.

Ruling Democratic Party lawmakers, like Rep. Kim Boo-kyum, also voiced concern on other inter-Korean initiatives, like reunions between families divided across the border that the two sides agreed to pursue after the first inter-Korean summit last year.

Ministry officials during the audit said Seoul would continue to support the denuclearization negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, while seeking the North’s cooperation in implementing bilateral agreements made during the two Koreas’ previous summits last year.

Seoul has sought to hold discussions with the North on African swine fever containment and sports exchanges, but was met with little interest from Pyongyang.

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