Lee Do-hoon arrives in Washington for meeting with Biegun on inter-Korean tensions

Posted on : 2020-06-19 16:36 KST Modified on : 2020-06-19 16:36 KST
Blue House says meeting was scheduled beforehand and is not a “special envoy”
Civic groups call for inter-Korean peace measures and the end of sanctions against North Korea in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul on June 10. (Yonhap News)
Civic groups call for inter-Korean peace measures and the end of sanctions against North Korea in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul on June 10. (Yonhap News)

Lee Do-hoon, the South Korean special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, arrived in Washington, DC, on June 17. His unexpected visit is taking place amid a rapid deterioration in inter-Korean relations, after North Korea demolished the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong.

Lee arrived around midday on June 17 at Dulles International Airport near Washington. He offered no public comments and didn’t elaborate on his itinerary. Regarding the aim behind the visit, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said that Lee was “scheduled for meetings involving senior South Korea-US representatives with [US Deputy Secretary of State, Special Representative for North Korea] Stephen Biegun to assess the Korean Peninsula situation and discuss response measures.”

The key objective of Lee’s US visit was to “prevent the situation from deteriorating further,” sources said. With tensions mounting amid the adoption of additional military measures by the North, Lee appears to have made the surprise decision to visit the US to prevent the Korean Peninsula situation from escalation into a situation like 2017, when tensions were high between both the two Koreas and between North Korea and the US. Lee is reportedly scheduled to stay in Washington for the week and meet with State Department and White House National Security Council officials in addition to Biegun.

The next question is whether the discussions will include measures to reduce sanctions against North Korea through inter-Korean economic cooperation. In a statement on June 16, the State Department said, “The United States fully supports the ROK's efforts on inter-Korean relations.”

Responding that day to media reports that Lee is visiting as a special envoy to the US, the Blue House called them “untrue,” explaining that he was “visiting not as a special envoy, but according to a schedule that was planned long ago.” Indeed, South Korean foreign affairs authorities had expressed agreement on the need for senior representative discussions and begun coordinating the date and framework around a month ago. The schedule for the meetings appears to have been finalized as the situation began escalating in the wake of a June 4 statement by Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee, which vehemently denounced the launches of balloons containing anti-North propaganda across the border, as well as the South Korean government for “feign[ing] ignorance.” The decision could be seen as a reflection of the perceived seriousness of the situation on both sides. In her statement, Kim warned of potential actions including the discontinuation of tourism at Mt. Kumgang, the complete demolition of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the closure of the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office, and the scrapping of an inter-Korean military agreement -- although she added the condition that this would be done “if [South Korea’s leaders] fail to take corresponding steps” in response to the balloon launches.

Trump signs extension of 6 executive orders sanctioning N. Korea on day of Lee’s arrival

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump extended existing executive orders sanctioning North Korea for another year the same day. Notification was given to Congress and a Federal Register listing was made stating that a total of six orders sanctioning North Korea -- including No. 13466 from the George W. Bush administration in 2008 and five others including expansions of that one -- needed to be kept in place. In his announcement to Congress, Trump said, “The existence and risk of proliferation of weapons-usable fissile material on the Korean Peninsula [. . .] continue[s] to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”

Similar extensions have been made every June since June 26, 2008, when the first order 13466 went into effect. While this year’s extension coincides with the increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, it is also an executive action following an established schedule, indicating that the additional extension was a gesture by the US toward North Korea.

By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter, and Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

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

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