U.S. Koreans can video chat kin in North

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U.S. Koreans can video chat kin in North

Koreans living in the United States may exchange filmed messages and take part in video conferences with family members in North Korea, the South’s Unification Ministry said on Tuesday.

These reunions between family members split apart by Korea’s partition are just one of the numerous inter-Korean exchanges that the South’s Unification Ministry hopes to pursue with the North despite international sanctions on the North. On Monday, the ministry’s spokesman said it would continue to push for economic cooperation with Pyongyang over the North’s Kaesong Industrial Complex and tours to Mount Kumgang within similar constraints.

While the future of the two economic projects remains uncertain due to pushback from the United States, humanitarian exchanges like the video conferences have received exemptions from sanctions. The relevant organizations are already undertaking preparations for their implementation, such as purchasing cameras and television monitors, the spokesman said.

According to a Radio Free Asia report from Monday, a Korean-American organization - the National Coalition on the Divided Families - was informed by a Washington government official that Seoul will also provide Koreans living in the United States with the chance to contact their families in the North through video conferences.

An official at the Unification Ministry on Tuesday added that discussions with the North were in progress on the matter through the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. The official said that subsequent talks between non-government bodies like the two Koreas’ Red Cross Societies could settle the details if there is sufficient progress by the governments.

Holding regular reunions between families separated since the 1950-53 Korean War is one of the tenets in the declaration signed by the two countries’ leaders during their Pyongyang summit last September. On Monday, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told lawmakers in Seoul that the South Korean government would continue to pursue the implementation of the agreement in whatever manner possible “through intimate discussions with the United States.”

Joint archeological excavations of historic sites from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) in Kaesong and Cheorwon, Gangwon, as well as the creation of a common Korean language dictionary will also be pursued, according to the ministry.

Yet even the most uncontroversial projects remain constrained by the international sanctions on Pyongyang due to its missile and nuclear programs. Only 9.6 billion won ($8.5 million) of the approximately 1.14 trillion won earmarked for inter-Korean cooperation projects - or just 0.9 percent - has been spent. This is far short of what Seoul had hoped to pour into cross-border exchanges to expand economic interests across the Korean Peninsula.

The Moon Jae-in administration nonetheless remains steadfast in its conciliatory policy toward the North, maintaining that inter-Korean economic cooperation - particularly reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and restarting Mount Kumgang tours - can expedite the North’s denuclearization process.

In spite of reported doubts in Washington on this approach, the Moon government is ramping up its role as a mediator in the stagnant talks between North Korea and the United States, according to a Blue House official who told reporters on Sunday that the government would “maintain the momentum of [denuclearization] negotiations by maximizing the positive elements and minimizing the negative ones of the Hanoi summit [between the leaders of the United States and North Korea].”

On Monday, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told lawmakers that she had discussed reopening Kaesong and Mount Kumgang with U.S. officials during a working-level discussion last Thursday. She was reportedly met with opposition.

Resistance from the United States could be fueled by recent signs that the sanctions appear to be taking a toll on the economy of North Korea, which requested food relief from the United Nations earlier this month.

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

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