What was the purpose of the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office?

Posted on : 2020-06-17 16:34 KST Modified on : 2020-06-17 16:58 KST
Two Koreas engaged in dialogue at the offices as recently as 2019
The Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong when it opened on Sept. 14, 2018. (photo pool)
The Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong when it opened on Sept. 14, 2018. (photo pool)

North Korean demolished the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong at 2:49 pm on June 16. The office first opened in the Kaesong Industrial Complex in September 2018, following a surprise agreement on its establishment in the Panmunjom Declaration between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Apr. 27 of that year. At the time of its opening, it was seen as marking the arrival of a permanent window for communication between Seoul and Pyongyang. Just 21 months later, the office is a pile of concrete rubble.

Located at the heart of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which occupies 3.3 square kilometers, the office building had been renovated from an inter-Korean exchange and cooperation discussion office opened in 2005. It measured four stories with one basement level and covered a floor area of 4,498.57 square meters. The first floor of the liaison office building housed an education center and information office, with South and North Korean offices on the second and fourth floors, respectively, and a conference room on the third. The resident South and North Korean staff would conduct their affairs separately in their offices and meet on the floor in between when discussions were needed. The original construction of the inter-Korean exchange and cooperation discussion office in 2005 cost 8 billion won (US$6.6 million), with another 9.78 billion won (US$8.1 million) spent in renovations and repairs when it was refurbished into a liaison office in 2018. The land itself is North Korean property, while South Korean authorities covered the costs of construction, renovations, and repairs.

Meeting at Panmunjom on Apr. 27, 2018, Moon and Kim reached an agreement to open the liaison office in Kaesong “in order to ensure close consultation between the authorities and to satisfactorily facilitate civil exchanges and cooperation,” according to Item 1-3 of the Panmunjom Declaration. After its opening on Sept. 14 of that year, the South Korean Vice Minister of Unification and the Vice Chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country respectively assumed the role of liaison office director. The South Korean director initially planned to hold meetings between them once a week -- but no meetings have been held since the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi broke down in February 2019, after which the North Korean director repeatedly gave notification of his nonattendance.

The office had not been in operation since all 58 South Korean resident staff members (17 officials and 41 support staff) were withdrawn from the office on Jan. 30 due to the threat of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

As recently as 2018-2019, South and North Korea were actively engaged in dialogue and meetings were held on issues such as forests, sports, healthcare, and communications. It was also there that agreements were reached on humanitarian matters, including the return of the body of a North Korean found in the West Sea. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU), a total of 327 discussions were held between the two sides at the liaison office in 2018 and 607 in 2019, including director and deputy director meetings, liaison representative discussions, and working-level discussions. The liaison office also played a role in support exchange efforts by NGOs and local governments, including the excavation of Manwoldae Palace in Kaesong, a joint event for the 20th anniversary of the Mt. Kumgang tourism project, visits to the Kaesong Complex by businesspeople, and the communication of condolences after the death of former South Korean First Lady Lee Hee-ho.

By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

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

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