North appears open to resuming dialogue, unification minister claims

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North appears open to resuming dialogue, unification minister claims

Unification Minister Lee In-young, center, meets with an association of private organizations pursuing cooperative projects with North Korea at the Central Government Complex in central Seoul on Friday. [YONHAP]

Unification Minister Lee In-young, center, meets with an association of private organizations pursuing cooperative projects with North Korea at the Central Government Complex in central Seoul on Friday. [YONHAP]

 
The situation on the Korean Peninsula appears to be at a turning point, with North Korea poised to return to dialogue sometime next January, South Korea’s top inter-Korean official said Tuesday.  

 
Citing letters exchanged by the countries' heads of state in September and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s peaceable remarks at a military parade in October as evidence of a changing attitude from Pyongyang, Minister of Unification Lee In-young told CBS Radio that a turnaround is currently in the works that could soon return communication between the two Koreas.

 
“As we see it, with the U.S. presidential election over, the political situation seems to be loosening in the direction of an overall U-turn, with the turning points being the North’s 8th Party Congress and President[-elect] Joe Biden’s inauguration in January next year,” Lee said.

 
The remarks were characteristically sanguine from an official whose sole job has been to work to pull inter-Korean ties out of the gutter they fell into this year, following the effective breakdown of denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.  

 
In June, the North unilaterally blew up the two Koreas’ liaison office in its border town of Kaesong, shortly after announcing it was severing all official communication channels.

 
Then military tensions flared up again on the peninsula in September when a South Korean fisheries official was shot dead by the North’s border guards while allegedly trying to defect.  

 
With outrage building in Seoul and public support for dialogue quickly drying up, Kim remarkably sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in apologizing for the shooting, attributing it to heightened alerts in the country over the coronavirus.

 
And in October, while simultaneously unveiling an enormous intercontinental ballistic missile and other weapons in a military parade, Kim referred to the South’s people in a speech as “beloved compatriots” signaling his interest in repairing ties.

 
As to the regime’s more recent silence, Lee noted North Korea may be struggling with a serious Covid-19 outbreak on its soil, despite its claims to the contrary.  

 
Expectations the country would loosen its antiepidemic regulations after its party anniversary in October were overturned when it announced even stronger measures would be imposed, Lee noted, which could mean the North is digging in to spare itself from a renewed spike in cases across the globe this winter.  

 
The country’s economy meanwhile faces “what we call a triple whammy,” the minister said, stemming from international sanctions, the Covid-triggered blockade and a series of natural disasters that slammed the peninsula over the summer months.  

 
Repeating comments he made on multiple earlier occasions, Lee then suggested Seoul should respond to these difficulties by extending a helping hand to the North, particularly in the field of public health with the provision of vaccines or testing kits.

 
“On one hand, making the North safe from the coronavirus is closely tied to making [South Korea] safe from Covid-19, so [extending help] may be our path to defending ourselves,” the minister added.  

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

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