Growing split in Seoul over N Korea threatens nuclear talks

SEOUL: When Seoul was preparing to open a liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong this summer after a decade of virtually no contact with its longtime enemy, South Korean officials had heated debates over whether they should seek approval from Washington.
Some top aides to President Moon Jae-In stressed it was an issue for the two Koreas alone and there was no need to involve their US ally, two people with knowledge of the situation said.
But to the surprise of several officials at the meeting, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-Gyon argued Washington must be consulted because Seoul’s plans might run afoul of sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme.
Two dozen countries including the Britain, Germany and Sweden already have embassies in Pyongyang, and other officials saw the proposed liaison office as a far lower-level of contact with the North.
And they certainly did not expect Cho to be a leading advocate of strict enforcement of sanctions. Cho was Moon’s personal choice to head the ministry, whose prime mission is to foster reconciliation, cooperation and eventual reunification with the North.
Cho, whose 30 year public service history has been inextricably linked to reunification, was even sacked from the ministry in 2008 over his “dovish” stance towards Pyongyang.
At the suggestion of Cho and senior diplomats, Seoul ultimately sought US consent before opening the office in September, one of the sources said.
All the sources spoke to condition of anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter.
Cho declined to comment for this article, but a senior official at the Unification Ministry said it was aware of criticisms of Cho.
“Inter-Korean ties are unique in their nature, but it’s been difficult, and there’s North Korea’s duplicity. It’s a dilemma we face, or our fate,” the official said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The previously unreported debate among Moon’s top officials illustrates a growing divide within South Korea over how to progress relations with the North while keeping Washington on side.
Some corners of the administration argue Seoul can’t afford to be seen veering from the US-led sanctions and pressure campaign until Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons programme, while others feel closer inter-Korean ties can help expedite the stalled diplomatic process, several officials close to the situation say.
“If the internal rift leads to moving too quickly with the North without sufficient US consultations, it could pose a setback to not only the nuclear talks but also the alliance and inter-Korean relations,” said Shin Beom-Chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
After the inter-Korean thaw gave way to reconciliation efforts between North Korean leader Kim Jong
Un and US President Donald Trump earlier this year, Trump asked Moon
to be “chief negotiator” between the two.
That task has become increasingly difficult as Washington and Pyongyang blame each other for the faltering nuclear talks.
US officials insist punishing sanctions must remain until North Korea completely denuclearises. North Korea says it has already made concessions by dismantling key facilities and Washington must reciprocate by easing sanctions and declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War.— Reuters