U.S. is for inter-Korean ties: Envoy

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U.S. is for inter-Korean ties: Envoy

South Korean Ambassador to the United States Lee Soo-hyuck said Tuesday in Washington that the United States has “never denied” the point that inter-Korean cooperation helps - and is needed for - North Korean denuclearization.

In a press conference with South Korean correspondents, Lee brushed off accusations that Washington doesn’t want Seoul to get too chummy with Pyongyang, saying it has always been the United States’ basic stance to think positively about improving South-North ties.

“Basically,” he said, “the United States has never denied the point that South-North cooperation helps and is needed for [North Korea’s] denuclearization, and it still feels that way.”

The envoy made the remark as he was answering to questions about Washington being fed up with Seoul’s latest efforts to allow individual tours to the North. South Korean President Moon Jae-in first raised the issue on Jan. 14 during his annual New Year’s press conference, when he said inter-Korean cooperation can’t wait for progress in denuclearization talks between the North and the United States, suggesting South Koreans’ tour to the North may help break the dialogue stalemate.

U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris threw cold water on that idea two days later when he said Moon’s proposal should run through a bilateral working group between Seoul and Washington, so as not to cause a misunderstanding that could “trigger sanctions.”

It was also not clear whether Harris was referring to North or South Korea as the target of possible sanctions arising from a misunderstanding, but his remarks implied that Seoul could be subject to a secondary boycott by the United States.

In an attempt to dial down the controversy, Lee said Tuesday that many people mistakenly think Seoul and Washington often clash with each other during working group discussions because Washington rejects inter-Korean initiatives, but Lee said this was far from the truth.

“Up to now, the United States has never rejected” a proposal from the South that ran through the working group, Lee said. The Korean ambassador stressed that the working group allows Seoul to inform the United States what kinds of inter-Korean projects it wishes to pursue, and discuss related sanctions issues that may later be brought up in the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions committee, which process he described as “advance preparation.”

On Moon’s proposition to allow South Koreans’ individual tours to North Korea’s Mount Kumgang resort, an official at Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said the government was reviewing whether the project should be raised in the working group, and if so, what could be discussed with the United States. Washington officials were said to have suggested to the ministry that for a working group meeting to be convened on the issue, the South Korean government should first draw a concrete plan as to how the tour packages would work.

BY JUNG HYO-SIK, LEE YU-JUNG AND LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]
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