North severs contacts in SouthNorth Korea has reportedly banned officials and businessmen in charge of inter-Korean projects from contacting private organizations in South Korea, according to several sources familiar with the North’s activities.
The ban was apparently put into effect after the U.S.-North Korea summit in Vietnam collapsed late February. Early this month, Pyongyang additionally ordered a stop to all discussions about joint projects with private organizations from the South, sources say.
One of the sources, who works for a private entity fostering inter-Korean cooperation, said he was due to visit Pyongyang in April or May to discuss humanitarian relief and other possible projects, but was sent a fax by his North Korean contact that such a meeting would be “temporarily difficult.”
Other South Korean groups involved in similar initiatives got the same message from the North, the source said. They received no explanation other than “orders from superiors.” Another source attested that North Korean contacts in China had been eager to engage in projects with the South since the first inter-Korean summit last April, but recently cut off contact with South Korean groups, refusing to pick up phone calls or return fax messages.
“The North Korean operatives seem to be taking the stance that they don’t even want to be seen as working with the South, and we’ve heard rumors that authorities in the North have issued a ‘no contact’ order with South Korean citizens,” the source said.
North Korea has choked off contacts in the past when relations with South Korea deteriorated. Currently, Pyongyang seems to be putting blame on Seoul for impasse in negotiations with the United States - as evidenced in the country’s leader Kim Jong-un’s reproach of the South for acting like an “officious mediator” in a speech last week.
One South Korean source from a humanitarian organization said there had been strange signs coming from North Korean officials ever since Pyongyang’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui - the country’s top negotiator with the United States - said in March that Seoul was a player, and not an arbitrator, in the peace process. “There appears to be an atmosphere [among North Koreans] that the South Korean government, too, has responsibility for the collapse of the Hanoi summit as a result of U.S. President Donald Trump walking out,” the source said.
Contacts between the Koreas is still happening through their main communication channel, the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, but they have shrunk. Since last month, when the North inexplicably withdrew its officials from the office and then sent them back three days later, Pyongyang’s main liaison officer has not shown up to his regular Friday meeting with his Seoul counterpart. Scheduled military talks between the two sides have also been canceled due to a lack of response from the North.
Now that private exchanges have been effectively frozen by Pyongyang, inter-Korean relations have iced over only a year since the two sides began a detente with their first summit in over a decade last April.
Following his return from a summit with Trump last week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday formally proposed holding another inter-Korean summit to break the logjam. But the Blue House’s proposal to dispatch a special envoy to Pyongyang to arrange such a meeting has reportedly been shrugged off by North Korean officials at the liaison office and other channels.
This isn’t good for Seoul’s plans for a joint commemorative ceremony with the North on the anniversary of last April’s inter-Korean summit, for which the South Korean government had been hoping to hold a variety of events including a music festival.
The sources had divergent opinions on how long they believed the North’s no-contact order would last, with some hoping that exchanges would resume by May. Others said any reopening would depend on a shift in stance from Washington on denuclearization. One source claimed that the freeze order had come directly from Kim Jong-un himself via the North’s point man on inter-Korean ties, Kim Yong-chol, who apparently signed off earlier this month on a directive that ruled out visits by South Koreans to Pyongyang for cooperative projects. Only a new inter-Korean summit and subsequent instructions from the North’s leadership can reverse those orders, this source said.
In the meantime, Pyongyang has been diversifying its diplomatic engagements by inching closer to Moscow. A flight by Koryo Airlines - the North’s state carrier - has been chartered from Pyongyang to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East for next Tuesday, April 23, according to a source in Vladivostok. That is fueling speculation that Kim Jong-un could be holding his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week.
BY JEONG YONG-SOO, BAEK MIN-JEONG and SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]