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Unification minister suggests upgrading S. Korea

Unification Minister Lee In-young elbow-bumps with U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris <strong></strong>during Harris' courtesy visit to the ministry in Seoul, Tuesday. / Yonhap
Unification Minister Lee In-young elbow-bumps with U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris during Harris' courtesy visit to the ministry in Seoul, Tuesday. / Yonhap

By Kang Seung-woo

In talks with U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris, Tuesday, Unification Minister Lee In-young proposed that a South Korea-U.S. working group be revamped to facilitate improvements in inter-Korean relations and the establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Ambassador Harris responded that the U.S. strongly supports inter-Korean cooperation and would find ways to continue this through the working group that he believes has played "an important role in creating a more secure and stable environment."

Lee's proposal came as the entity coordinating North Korea-related issues has been under fire from South Korean liberal politicians and activists for allegedly "hindering progress" in inter-Korean ties due to its "excessively harsh" standards adopted on the North. They have called for restructuring its operation or even dismantling it.

"By readjusting or reorganizing the working group, it should be directed toward improving ties between South and North Korea and expediting peace efforts on the peninsula," Lee told Harris during their first meeting, held at the ministry in Seoul as part of the ambassador's courtesy visit to the new minister. Lee took office in July.

"There have been pros and cons of the working group. However, if we upgrade it, concerns that the group is preventing inter-Korean projects could be eased. To this end, we have to upgrade the group into a 2.0 version.

"Ushering in a new era for the working group 2.0 with Ambassador Harris, I am looking forward to closely communicating and cooperating with the United States."

Harris said, "As Minister Lee said, and echoed by the foreign minister, the South Korean ambassador to the U.S., and the special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security, the working group is an efficient mechanism and we look forward to working closely together and pursuing this important work."

He added: "And I look forward to understanding more fully the parameters of working group 2.0."

Their meeting carried extra significance beyond the courtesy visit as the Moon Jae-in administration is adopting a harder drive for inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation with the Kim Jong-un regime, separate from Pyongyang's halted denuclearization talks with Washington.

In line with President Moon's drive for independent policies toward the North, Lee has not wasted any time and has begun pushing the government's pitch for resuming long-suspended tours to the North on an individual basis. A South Korean tour program to a resort on Mount Geumgang was halted in 2008 after a female South Korean tourist was shot dead there by a North Korean guard.

The unification ministry's stance on individual tourism is that it is not subject to international sanctions imposed on the totalitarian state for its nuclear and missile programs, because it would not involve bulk cash transfers unlike group tours.

In addition, Lee, a long-time advocate of engagement with the North, is pushing for "small-scale trading" with the North to expand cross-border exchanges, which he has pitched as a "creative" way to avoid violating sanctions on the North.

According to him, small trading would involve bartering South Korean rice and drugs for North Korean water and liquor and would also avoid violating sanctions as it also does not involve sending bulk cash to the North.

However, Harris has said that such plans need to be discussed through the South Korea-U.S. working group to avoid misunderstandings related to the sanctions.

Lee has not completely denied the function that the working group has played in effectively resolving matters related to sanctions on the North. But he said during his National Assembly confirmation hearing last month, "We'll distinguish issues that require discussion by the working group from those that do not, and promote the latter first."


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