Unification Ministry defers Kaesong request

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Unification Ministry defers Kaesong request

The Unification Ministry on Wednesday deferred a request submitted by owners of businesses at the Kaesong Industrial Complex to visit their shuttered factories in North Korea, reportedly due to heavy pushback from the United States.

A group of 179 executives and employees of businesses in the inter-Korean economic zone applied to visit their inactive factories in Kaesong for the eighth time last week, boosted by recent optimistic statements made by South Korean government officials on cross-border cooperation with the North.

Even after hopes of sanctions relief for Pyongyang were dashed with the collapse of the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi last month, South Korean President Moon Jae-in remained resolute in continuing engagement with the North, announcing in his March 1st address that Seoul would discuss reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and its twin project, the Mount Kumgang tour program, with the United States.

But the South’s forward push on inter-Korean initiatives, in spite of the uncertain status of the North’s denuclearization drive, has reportedly irked officials in Washington. A senior U.S. State Department official on Wednesday said inter-Korean relations cannot move forward independent of the denuclearization issue, according to the Voice of America.

Sources in the United States now say there is general agreement in Washington on North Korea policy - economic engagement with the regime must not be permitted until the country fully complies with its pledge to denuclearize. However, disagreement persists on the effectiveness of the current sanctions regime on the North.

Perhaps in response to the reported refusal by the U.S. State Department to hold a foreign ministers’ meeting with the South due to disagreements over engagement with Pyongyang, a senior official at Seoul’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday took a step back regarding Kaesong and Mount Kumgang, saying it was “inappropriate to comment at this time on moving forward” with the projects. “[The projects] remain an important priority, and we will cooperate with the United States when the time is ripe,” the official continued, adding there are not many joint projects to pursue with the North at the moment.

The Unification Ministry’s decision to defer the businesses’ request to visit Kaesong comes amid this apparently growing rift between the allies over the North.

While the ministry’s spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said the review of the request would continue until March 22, it is unlikely that there would be a major shift in the U.S. position toward Kaesong that would provide grounds for the visit’s approval until then.

Last week, the ministry said it believed a visit by the businessmen would be feasible under the current sanctions regime, since it would only pertain to the inspection of facilities at Kaesong. At a press briefing on Tuesday, Vice Minister Chun Hae-sung said that pursuing economic cooperation with the North would remain fixed in the framework of sanctions, but admitted that in order for the projects to resume, “conditions would need to be met.”

The Trump administration is adamantly opposed to phased denuclearization by Pyongyang. This was affirmed once again by the top U.S. envoy to the country, Stephen Biegun, at a conference in Washington on Tuesday.

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