Envoys to kick off working group talks

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Envoys to kick off working group talks


Global leaders including former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Korean government and local officials, experts and members of the International Olympic Committee take a photo at the PyeongChang Peace Forum 2020 in Gangwon, Sunday, to mark the second anniversary of the 2019 Winter Olympics. [NEWS1]

Alex Wong, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for North Korea, is set to hold working group talks aimed at coordination on policy toward Pyongyang with his South Korean counterpart Monday, which could be an opportunity to discuss ways to go forward with inter-Korean projects.

South Korea has pushed for individual tourism with North Korea despite a standstill in the denuclearization negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang since the working-level talks in Stockholm in October last year. The working group talks between Seoul and Washington were established in November 2018 to coordinate Seoul and Washington’s policies toward Pyongyang on denuclearization, sanctions implementation and inter-Korean cooperation.

Wong arrived in Korea Sunday afternoon, and his visit is expected to run through Wednesday. On Monday he is expected to hold talks with Rhee Dong-yeol, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Korean Peninsula Peace Regime Bureau. Wong was also expected to meet with other officials, including Lee Do-hoon, Seoul’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs.

The U.S. Embassy in Korea confirmed Sunday that Wong will lead the U.S. delegation for working group talks to discuss coordination with Seoul on issues “including inter-Korean cooperation, humanitarian issues and brighter future planning.”

Wong doubles as the deputy special representative for North Korea and “manages all diplomatic and technical policy on North Korea,” to support top U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun, according to the U.S. State Department. Biegun, promoted to deputy secretary of state last December, doubles as the special representative for North Korea and leads the working group talks with Seoul alongside Lee.

President Moon Jae-in encouraged the resumption of individual tourism to North Korea and the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex during his New Year’s address on Jan. 7. He said reconnecting the inter-Korean railways and roads would “also provide a big boost to the resumption of inter-Korean tourism and the revitalization of North Korea’s tourism.”

Denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington have been stuck over the past year since a second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump collapsed nearly a year ago in Hanoi, Vietnam. Seoul has said that individual tourism and North Korea engagement could happen in tandem with and encourage efforts to revive those negotiations.

Tourism to North Korea is technically not in violation of United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang, but working group meetings between Seoul and Washington could be a venue to make sure the two sides are on the same page.

U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris last month told foreign correspondents that individual tourism should be done in “consultation” with the United States, adding that misunderstandings “could trigger sanctions.” Blue House officials criticized Harris’s remarks as being inappropriate, as inter-Korean affairs ultimately are up to the decision of the South Korean government.

However, the outbreak of the new coronavirus which spread from Wuhan, China, has put another damper on Moon’s visions of engagement with the North. Pyongyang has focused on shutting down its borders to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Countries are in a crisis situation responding to the virus,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said during a press conference in Seoul last Thursday. “There will be a need to re-examine our diplomatic policy after the emergency health situation stabilizes.”

But, she added, “Our government’s position is to revitalize inter-Korean cooperation this year, including individual tourism.”

Seoul’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul likewise stressed the need to continue to push for inter-Korean railways, roads projects and tourism.

Speaking Sunday at the PyeongChang Peace Forum 2020, Kim also urged to begin sustainable inter-Korean exchanges.

“In difficult times, if we help each other and overcome hurdles together, we will become closer to the path to peace,” Kim said.

The PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February 2018 resulted in a detente of provocations on the Korean Peninsula and paved way to the inter-Korean summits and first North-U.S. summits later that year.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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