Moon administration considering reopening private sector inter-Korean exchange

Posted on : 2017-05-23 17:18 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
South Korean government not looking to resume full-fledged dialogue yet, but could reinstate Panmunjeom hotline
Unification Ministry spokesperson Lee Duk-haeng
Unification Ministry spokesperson Lee Duk-haeng

“We mean to carry out a flexible review of private-sector exchange and other key issues dealing with inter-Korean relations in a way that does not damage the international community’s framework of sanctions against North Korea,” said South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesperson Lee Duk-haeng on May 22. Lee’s remarks are noteworthy considering that they come amid a series of applications for contact with North Korea that organizations providing humanitarian aid to North Korea have submitted around the time of Moon Jae-in’s inauguration as president. The question is whether private-sector exchange can be used to thaw inter-Korean relations, which were frozen during the administrations of former presidents Lee Myung-bak (2008-13) and Park Geun-hye (2013-16).

“We believe the current rupture in inter-Korean relations is not desirable for the stability of the Korean Peninsula,” Lee said during the regular press briefing on the morning of May 22.

Amid growing hopes that inter-Korean relations will improve under the new administration, a series of groups organizing social and cultural exchange and groups providing aid to North Korea have filed applications for contact, starting with the Korean Sharing Movement on May 2. In addition, the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea (chairman Lee Je-hoon), a coalition of groups providing aid to North Korea, filed an “indirect contact request” on May 10. They want permission to contact the North Korean office of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation to discuss various aspects of humanitarian aid to the North.

“While we cannot resume full-fledged dialogue at the present time because of a number of circumstances, I do think we should quickly reopen the communication network and the hotline at Panmunjeom,” said Blue House National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong when asked about inter-Korean dialogue. Chung made the comments while speaking to reporters following a meeting with the floor leaders of opposition parties at the National Assembly on May 22. “We will gradually need to make an attempt to initiate dialogue, starting at the working level. And since it is our view that we can move forward with people-to-people exchange and social, cultural and sports exchange while respecting the system of sanctions against North Korea, we‘ll have to start carefully reviewing those options now.”

Moon has made clear on several occasions, both before and after his election, that he intends to use improved inter-Korean relations to work with neighboring countries to tackle the North Korean nuclear and missile issues. A report titled “The Governing Conditions and Orientation of the New Government” that was jointly completed on May 17 by the Minjoo Party’s election committee and the Democratic Institute called for expanding exchange: “Depending on the improvement of inter-Korean relations, it will be necessary to adopt a liberal stance toward private-sector cooperation and exchange with North Korea.”

“Given the current rupture in inter-Korean relations, the new government just needs to provide the minimum amount of aid to North Korea permitted by international norms,” suggested Kim Yeon-cheol, a professor at Inje University. “The international agreements on sanctions against North Korea are outlined in the sanctions by the UN Security Council. To begin with, we should slowly and progressively permit what is permissible, taking the Security Council sanctions as guidelines.”

Chung Eui-yong also told reporters that “we‘re currently reviewing the idea of setting up a task force in the National Security Office to look into National Defense reform, the THAAD issue and how to strengthen the South Korea-US alliance.”

By Jung In-hwan, staff reporter

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