Unification Ministry responds to controversy over visit of Kim Yong-chol

Posted on : 2018-02-24 14:36 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Kim “is a figure with the authority to discuss the issues of denuclearization and improving inter-Korean relations”
A North Korean high-ranking delegation led by North Korean Workers‘ Party (KWP) Central Committee vice chairman Kim Yong-chol will arrive in South Korea on Feb. 25. Kim
A North Korean high-ranking delegation led by North Korean Workers‘ Party (KWP) Central Committee vice chairman Kim Yong-chol will arrive in South Korea on Feb. 25. Kim

On Feb. 23, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification responded to the controversy over the planned visit to South Korea by North Korean Workers' Party (KWP) Central Committee Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol, who has been identified as the man responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan naval vessel in May 2010, by saying that it “completely understands the concerns of some citizens” but “decided to allow Kim’s visit as part of the larger framework of establishing developing inter-Korean relations and establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

“We took into account the fact that Kim, as the director of United Front Department, the North Korean body that currently handles inter-Korean relations, is a figure with the authority to discuss the issues of denuclearization and improving inter-Korean relations,” said Unification Ministry spokesperson Baek Tae-hyeon during a press briefing.

“The joint civilian and military investigation into the Cheonan sinking found that the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo, but it did not find that the director of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau [who was Kim Yong-chol at the time] had arranged the attack. We hope that the public will understand [the decision to accept Kim’s visit] as being focused on the future and the bigger picture,” Baek said.

But the Unification Ministry also emphasized that “the government firmly holds that the sinking of the Cheonan was a manifest military provocation by North Korea and that any military provocation that damages inter-Korean peace and trust is unacceptable.”

During a phone call with the Hankyoreh on Feb. 23, Kim Yeon-cheol, a professor at Inje University, addressed the controversy over the appropriateness of Kim’s visiting South Korea.

“How is inter-Korean dialogue supposed to happen if we refuse to acknowledge Kim Yong-chol as the director of the United Front Department? [Kim] also took part in [inter-Korean] dialogue during the Park Geun-hye administration. What is important is his current position as director of the United Front Department,” said Kim.

Kim Yong-chol was the chief North Korean negotiator during inter-Korean military talks held on the South Korean side of Panmunjeom in Oct. 2014, while he was director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

“We may be uncomfortable with this, but we can’t turn [Kim Yong-chol] away. If we were only looking at [the other side’s] record, how could we have an inter-Korean summit with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader?” asked Wi Sung-lak, South Korea’s former chief envoy to the Six Party Talks.

“These talks are aimed at stopping another Cheonan from being sunk, at preventing a second or third Korean War. We have to take a broader view on this visit to South Korea,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

A different view was offered by Chun Yung-woo, the director of the Korean Peninsula Future Forum who served as Blue House Senior Secretary for Foreign Policy and National Security during the presidency of Lee Myung-bak. “Forty-six sailors died in the sinking of the Cheonan. [Dispatching Kim Yong-chol] represents mockery of and disdain for the South Korean government and public. We could reject Kim obliquely and ask for the North to send someone else,” Cheon said.

Dual motives seen in Kim Yong-chol’s visit to South Korean

Experts see Kim Jong-un’s decision to send Kim Yong-chol as both showing North Korea’s commitment to improving inter-Korean relations and as a shrewd move aimed at relaxing sanctions on the North. “I think this reflects Kim Jong-un’s desire to engage in various deliberations to improve inter-Korean relations after the closing ceremony,” Yang said.

Since Kim Yong-chol is on the list of sanctions against North Korea, said former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, his selection “ought to be seen as having the strategic objective of easing sanctions down the road.”

In a related development, Kang Seok-ho, a lawmaker with the Liberty Korea Party and chair of the National Assembly’s National Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Feb. 23 that Kim Sang-gyun, second National Intelligence Service deputy director in charge of North Korean affairs, told the committee that Kim Yong-chol could not be definitely identified as the one who had ordered the sinking of the Cheonan. But lawmakers with the Liberty Korea Party held a demonstration opposing Kim’s visit to South Korea that morning in front of the Blue House fountain, chanting that President Moon Jae-in should step down for insulting the family members of those lost in the sinking of the Cheonan. The party is planning to hold another demonstration on Feb. 26.

By Song Ho-jin, Eum Ji-won, and Noh Ji-won, staff reporters

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

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