South Korea, US set to consider terminating working group on North Korea

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Noh Kyu-duk (right), South Korea's special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, talks with his US counterpart Sung Kim (left) during their bilateral meeting at a hotel in Seoul on Monday. AFP

Seoul and Washington have agreed to consider ending a controversial working group on North Korea, the South’s foreign ministry said on June 22, as the US’ point man on Pyongyang called for a resumption of dialogue with the recalcitrant regime.

Pyongyang, however, poured cold water on the allies’ engagement gesture on June 22 when the North Korean leader’s powerful younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, issued a statement saying the US’ expectation for talks would “plunge them into a greater disappointment”.

During a meeting on June 21 in Seoul between visiting US special representative for North Korea Sung Kim and his South Korean counterpart, Noh Kyu-duk, the two agreed to look into terminating the working group, according to the ministry, while strengthening coordination at other levels.

The joint consultative channel was established in November 2018 and addressed a range of issues regarding the North, including denuclearisation, sanctions enforcement, humanitarian aid and inter-Korean projects. But Pyongyang, which views the working group as serving US interests, said the forum between the state department and the foreign ministry was preventing progress on speedy cross-border exchanges by emphasising sanctions.

First vice-foreign minister Choi Jong-kun told a parliamentary session that the working group, despite the positive functions of policy coordination between the allies, faced criticism and was viewed as an impediment to inter-Korean relations.

Choi suggested a dialogue involving director general-level diplomats from both countries as an alternative to the working group, stressing that policy coordination on the North would continue.

When a lawmaker asked whether the disbandment of the forum was a way to draw Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, Choi said it could send a “signal” to the North.

The possible breakup of the forum was announced as the top US nuclear envoy is in Seoul for a five-day visit to speak with officials from South Korea and Japan amid a continued stalemate in nuclear diplomacy with the North. On June 21, Sung Kim offered to meet with Pyongyang “anywhere, anytime, without preconditions,” and expressed hope for a positive response from the regime.

On the morning of June 22, the US envoy met with unification minister Lee In-young and stressed that the US and South Korea are “very closely aligned on all important aspects” of their North Korea policy and that the two countries agree on a shared commitment to pursue “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula through diplomacy and dialogue”.

Lee, who handles inter-Korean affairs, said it was a “critical watershed moment” for dialogue. “For the prompt resumption of talks, Korea and the US need to move in an active and agile manner through consensus,” he said.

The minister asked Sung Kim for support for Seoul’s push for inter-Korean cooperation, such as anti-pandemic efforts, reunions for families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War, Kumgangsan tourism and climate change.

The US official echoed Lee’s view that now is an important moment for South Korea and the US and said he hoped Pyongyang would respond, while expressing support for Seoul’s push to improve inter-Korean relations.

“We support meaningful inter-Korean dialogue, cooperation and engagement, and I look forward to staying in very close touch with you and your colleagues about some of the ideas that you have going forward,” Sung Kim said.

In the afternoon, Sung Kim paid a courtesy call on President Moon Jae-in, during which Moon vowed to do everything possible during his remaining term in office to put inter-Korean relations and North Korea-US ties “on a certain track”, according to Cheong Wa Dae, the presidential Blue House.

The president also requested that the US resume talks with the North and continue efforts to achieve progress in negotiations in close coordination with Seoul.

In turn, Sung Kim reaffirmed Biden’s support for meaningful inter-Korean dialogue, engagement and cooperation, adding that he would do his best to revive the North Korea-US talks.

But with Pyongyang dismissing US calls for negotiations, it remains to be seen whether progress can be made in the coming months.

Kim Yo-jong was specifically responding to US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s comments about dialogue with the US were an “interesting signal”.

Last week Kim Jong-un said his country was ready for “both dialogue and confrontation” with Washington, particularly the latter. It was his first direct comment on the Biden administration since the inauguration.