U.S. Senate group trip skips Foreign Ministry

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U.S. Senate group trip skips Foreign Ministry

A bipartisan U.S. Senate delegation visited Seoul earlier this week to discuss Pyongyang’s denuclearization and call on the South Korean government not to forget human rights in North Korea, but did not meet with South Korean Foreign Ministry or Unification Ministry officials.

The group of nine senators, headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, met with U.S. officials and military leaders and made a visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) during their short visit to Korea. The delegation set off Sunday on their 10-day trip to Asia, which also took them to Vietnam Wednesday.

Diplomatic sources said that the group arrived at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, on Tuesday, made a visit to the DMZ and met with U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris and Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea. They departed for Vietnam Wednesday morning.

In a press release last Friday, Leahy said that their visit included briefings and discussions on “U.S.-South Korean trade and other bilateral issues, the U.S.-DPRK nuclear negotiations, and POWs/MIAs.” The DPRK is an acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Repatriating the bodies of American prisoners of war and those missing in action was one of the four pledges made in the June 12 joint agreement between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore last year.

However, the Senate delegation did not meet with officials from the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Unification, which oversee North Korea issues. This comes despite some U.S. lawmakers raising the issue of sanctions enforcement on Pyongyang and North Korean human rights during their trip to South Korea.

“The United States and South Korea share a deep, longstanding friendship and this is a critical time in our relationship,” said Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a member of the delegation, through a statement Wednesday. “In our discussions with government officials, the topic of North Korea was a constant point of discussion.”

While he supports direct dialogue between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, Portman added, “I believe our sanctions must remain in place until North Korea truly changes course and agrees to denuclearize. We discussed ways to keep North Korea from circumventing the sanctions, and how to keep pressure on North Korea.”

Portman also brought up Otto Warmbier, the American student from Ohio who died in June 2017 after being detained for17 months in Pyongyang and was released in a coma. Portman wore a T-shirt honoring Warmbier during his visit to the DMZ in a photo he shared over Twitter on Wednesday.

He also met with South Korean government officials and a North Korean defector to discuss North Korean human rights abuses.

“Being in the region, I could not help but think of Otto Warmbier and his family,” said Portman in the statement. “Otto has been at the front of my mind while I’ve been here and I’ve made clear to South Korean government officials that we must never forget him. I also met with a North Korean defector to hear more about what it’s like inside North Korea and the country’s human rights abuses.”

He added that “North Korea’s human rights abuses and how they must change” must be a part of continued dialogue with Pyongyang.

Portman, a former U.S. trade representative, also met with Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee to discuss “efforts to deepen economic ties” between Seoul and Washington. He discussed with Korean trade officials “ways to open up the South Korean markets to more agriculture, auto and other manufacturing exports from Ohio,” according to a statement from his office.

A Korean Foreign Ministry official said, “The senators’ schedule here was so tight that there were no Foreign Ministry officials scheduled. Our foreign minister, likewise, was not available because of [President Moon Jae-in’s] overseas trip.”

However, should the senators have wished to meet with foreign affairs officials, a meeting would likely have been scheduled.

The Appropriations Committee deals with the U.S. government’s budget including the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

A source that had contact with the delegation said, “There is the issue of defense cost-sharing between South Korea and the United States, and the committee would determine how much of the budget should be allocated to Korea.”

This source pointed out that there have been other instances recently where U.S. lawmakers have bypassed Korean government officials during Seoul visits.

BY LEE YU-JUNG, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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