Harry Harris says S. Korea should consult with US on inter-Korean projects to “avoid a misunderstanding”

Posted on : 2020-01-17 18:24 KST Modified on : 2020-01-17 18:24 KST
US ambassador’s remarks demonstrate clear rift between Washington and Moon’s plans for tourism to N. Korea
US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris gives a congratulatory address at the 2020 CICI Korea Image Awards in Seoul on Jan. 14. (Yonhap News)
US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris gives a congratulatory address at the 2020 CICI Korea Image Awards in Seoul on Jan. 14. (Yonhap News)

With the South Korean government striving for progress in inter-Korean relations, US ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris said on Jan. 16 that South Korea needs to consult the South Korea-US working group regarding any plans related to inter-Korean cooperation “in order to avoid a misunderstanding later that could trigger sanctions.” Harris essentially applied the yardstick of sanctions to the plan to improve inter-Korean relations that South Korean President Moon Jae-in unveiled in his New Year’s address and press conference.

While speaking to foreign correspondents in Seoul on Thursday, Harris said that Washington and Seoul need to be in close consultation in regard to a proposal for allowing individual tourism to North Korea, Reuters reported. This clashes with Moon’s declaration that individual tourism wouldn’t be subject to sanctions.

While Harris added that “South Korea is a sovereign country” and that its decisions don’t require American approval, his remarks seem to emphasize that South Korean projects aimed at improving inter-Korean relations need to be cleared by the Working Group, a consultative body established by South Korea and the US. This is prompting some experts to say that the two countries are beginning to disagree over inter-Korean cooperation.

Harris described Moon’s plan to improve inter-Korean relations as reflecting his “optimism”: “President Moon’s continued optimism is encouraging. I think his optimism creates hope, and that’s a positive thing,” Harris said. “But with regard to acting on that optimism, I have said that things should be done in consultation with the United States.”

In regard to Moon’s interview with Korean public broadcaster KBS shortly after his New Year’s speech on Jan. 7, Harris said that the US wants to see progress on denuclearization, along with success or progress in inter-Korean relations. Projects such as arranging a return visit to Seoul by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or jointly registering the DMZ as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ambassador said, would all need to be conducted through deliberations with the US.

Harris conceded that his remarks didn’t represent the US’ official position. Even so, his repeated emphasis on deliberation between South Korea and the US seems to suggest wariness in the US about Moon’s efforts to advance inter-Korean relations.

Lee Do-hoon arrives in US for deliberations on N. Korea

In a related development, South Korean Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon, who arrived in the US on Jan. 15 for deliberations between the two countries’ chief envoys on the North Korean nuclear issue, said he would be discussing the issue of individual tourism to North Korea with the US. After reaching Dulles International Airport, near Washington, Lee said that tourism to North Korea “isn’t banned by UN Security Council sanctions per se” and said he “wants to try discussing this” with the US.

By Yoo Kang-moon, senior staff writer, and Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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