[News analysis] How can S. Korea improve its working group with the US?

Posted on : 2020-06-19 16:38 KST Modified on : 2020-06-19 16:38 KST
N. Korea identified the working group as major reason for failure of inter-Korean agreements
Civic groups call for the disbandment of the South Korea-US working group in front of the Blue House. (Yonhap News)
Civic groups call for the disbandment of the South Korea-US working group in front of the Blue House. (Yonhap News)

Following North Korea’s identification of a “South Korea-US working group” as a major reason behind the failure to implement inter-Korean agreements, some are calling on Seoul and Washington to urgently improve the working group’s management. Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and security affairs, arrived in Washington, DC, on June 17, and is likely to discuss the matter with US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, special representative for North Korea.

At a regular press conference on June 18, a South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) official said only that Lee planned to “assess the Korean Peninsula situation and discuss response measures” with Biegun. When asked whether ideas for changing the operation of the working group were being considered, the official did not give a specific response, offering only that they had “nothing in particular to comment here.” But with some now blaming Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha for the souring of inter-Korean relations, some form of related discussion appears likely to take place.

The South Korea-US working group in question was first established on Nov. 20, 2018, shortly after the announcement of the Pyongyang Declaration and a military agreement by South and North Korea on Sept. 19 of that year. The group was established to prevent Seoul and Pyongyang from getting too far ahead of meaningful denuclearization actions by the North. As if to demonstrate this, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made comments at the first meeting likening denuclearization and inter-Korean relations to a “tandem bike,” describing them as parallel processes where neither side would be able to act independently of the other.

But since the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi broke down without yielding results in late February 2019, the group has come under fire, with critics calling it an “interference group” stymieing various efforts by the South Korean government to improve inter-Korean relations. The group’s participants come chiefly from MOFA, the Blue House, and the Ministry of Unification (MOU) on the South Korean side, as well the Ministry of National Defense and National Intelligence Service; its participants on the US side are from the State Department, the White House, the National Security Council, and the Treasury Department. Amid ongoing criticism of the group and calls for its abolition in South Korea, MOFA has been referring to it instead as a “working-level meeting” since May.

US has used working group to intervene in humanitarian projects

The biggest issue with the working group is that the US has been using the framework to intervene even in humanitarian efforts that are not subject to UN Security Council sanctions. The result has been numerous cases where even practicable efforts have failed to materialize. A case in point was the prevention of efforts to provide the flu treatment Tamiflu to North Korea. In January 2019, the US blocked a vehicle meant to carry the Tamiflu on the grounds that it could be in violation of North Korea sanctions. As the support was delayed, North Korea eventually refused the shipment. The working group has also taken issue with other efforts pursued by South and North Korea, including a railway and road linkage project in addition to the Mt. Kumgang tourism project and operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Regarding the issue of improving the group’s management, former Presidential Chief of Staff Lim Jong-seok made some suggestions in the summer edition of “The Changbi Quarterly” published last month. To achieve progress in inter-Korean relations, Lim’s idea was to “work actively to persuade the US and international community” to alter the standards for determining what constitutes a violation of sanctions, such as the “border crossing” currently advocated by the US to “transfers” of jurisdiction and ownership to North Korea. His argument was that resolving this issue would enable basic surveys and plans for areas such as forestry cooperation and railway/road linkages, allowing projects to proceed to the stage just prior to implementation.

He went on to advise that the MOU not participate in the working group as the presiding agency for inter-Korean cooperation, arguing that it would be prevented from doing anything as part of a group that “often applies rigorous and excessive interpretations of sanctions resolutions.” Under this system, MOU would work actively to improve inter-Korean relations, while MOFA would be responsible for “prior coordination” and “settling issues” with the US.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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

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