SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korea on Friday opened their first joint liaison office, a facility that will be staffed by personnel from both countries, marking another advance in the rival states’ rapidly improving relationship.
The liaison office, in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, establishes the first channel for full-time, person-to-person contact between the Koreas.
The countries have technically been at war for decades because an armistice, not a peace treaty, halted the Korean War in 1953.
South Korean officials consider the office another important step toward ending decades of enmity and hope it will eventually lead to the establishment of diplomatic missions in each other’s capitals.
They said the new facility would reduce the chances of dangerous misunderstandings along the heavily armed inter-Korean border. It will also serve as a venue for meetings as the two countries consider joint economic projects and other matters, they said.
“From today, South and North Korea can hold face-to-face discussions 24 hours a day and every day of the year on matters concerning improving inter-Korean ties and promoting peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula,” Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, the South Korean official who oversees relations with the North, said during a speech in Kaesong, according to pool reports from South Korean journalists there.
More than 50 South Korean officials, politicians, businesspeople and scholars visited Kaesong on Friday for the opening ceremony.
Cho’s North Korean counterpart, Ri Son Gwon, urged both Koreas to work together to open “a broad avenue for peace and prosperity.”
Until now, the only regular channel of communication between North and South Korea has been telephone hotlines that their governments and armed forces have run across the border. But those have been turned off and on again over the years, depending on the political climate.
Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung will head the 30-member South Korean mission in the liaison office. But Chun will mostly work in Seoul, traveling to Kaesong, a 90-minute drive from the South Korean capital, for weekly meetings with North Korean officials, including his counterpart, Jon Jong Su.
The office will be open five days a week, with duty officers on standby on weekends, officials said. Personnel from both Koreas will live at the compound and be on call around the clock.
The office is in a four-story building within what used to be a factory park. The two Koreas jointly ran that park, which was established during an earlier period of warmth in their off-and-on relationship, until the South shut it down in 2016 amid rising tensions over the North’s nuclear arms program.
An agreement to open the new office was first reached in April, when President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, held their first summit. They originally planned to open it in late August, but the date was pushed back after President Donald Trump canceled a trip to Pyongyang by his secretary of state, citing a lack of progress in denuclearization talks with the North.
South Korea has dismissed concerns that it is opening up to the North too quickly, and that it should insist on more concrete steps toward denuclearization in return. Moon argues that improving inter-Korean ties will encourage, not deter, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This month he sent envoys to North Korea, who reported that Kim wanted denuclearization before the end of Trump’s current term, if he were offered the right incentives.
Moon plans to travel to Pyongyang on Tuesday for his third summit with Kim. Moon hopes to help restart the stalled talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
The two Korean leaders also plan to follow up on their April agreement to ease military tensions along the inter-Korean border. At their April meeting, Moon also offered help with the modernization of the North’s decrepit railways and highways, as an incentive for the North to abandon nuclear arms.
But Moon reaffirmed this week that inter-Korean ties, including major joint economic projects, could advance only after the North denuclearizes and the United Nations lifts sanctions.
The conservative political opposition and news media in the South have raised fears that Moon’s government is creating a rift with the United States. Washington has said that it wants inter-Korean relations to improve in tandem with progress on denuclearization.
But Trump has indicated he is eager to meet with Kim again, though his top aides remain skeptical about the vague commitment to denuclearization that Kim made when the two leaders met in Singapore in June.
Conservatives in the South have also suggested that the South’s provision of fuel oil and electricity to the liaison office could violate U.N. sanctions.
Moon’s office has dismissed such concerns as “quibbling,” noting that 24 nations, including Britain and Germany, operate embassies in the North. It said the liaison office would not violate sanctions because it would provide no economic benefit for the North Korean government.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Source: Pluse ng