South Korea’s unification minister on Tuesday proposed a high-level government meeting with North Korea on January 9 at the truce village of Panmunjom.
The proposal came a day after Kim Jong Un said he could be willing to dispatch a delegation to the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea, suggesting that a government-level meeting with the South about the matter should be held “urgently.”
“The government proposes to hold inter-Korean high-level government talks at Peace House, Panmunjom on January 9 to discuss issues including the North’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics,” Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon said at a special news briefing.
Cho said the government had made the suggestion quickly because the PyeongChang Winter Olympics will be held in around one month.
The PyeongChang Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games will be held between February 9 and 25 and March 9 and 18 respectively.
The unification minister also called for the North to normalize the communication channel between the two Koreas at a liaison office in Panmunjom “immediately,” in order to facilitate discussions over “detailed procedures including the agenda and formation of the delegation.”
The two Koreas used to hold talks over the phones installed at the liaison offices in Panmunjom twice a day. The communication channel there, however, has been blocked since the Park Geun-hye administration shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in February 2016.
“We hope South and North Korea can sit face-to-face and candidly discuss issues of mutual interest concerning the improvement of inter-Korean ties, along with the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics,” Cho told assembled media.
“We look forward to receiving a positive response from the North.”
FIRST MEETING IN TWO YEARS
If the proposal is accepted, it would be the first meeting between North and South Korean authorities since South Korean vice-unification minister Hwang Boo-gi held talks with his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong Su at the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in December 2015.
Cho expressed his hope that Seoul and Pyongyang could discuss “various pending issues” given that inter-Korean talks have been stalled “for a long time” and that Kim Jong Un raised the necessity for dialogue.
“If the South and North Korean authorities sit face-to-face, we will (be able to) discuss… various mutual interests considering the seriousness of the nuclear issue of the Korean peninsula,” he said, adding Seoul will put efforts into raising these issues with its counterpart.
Cho said the Moon administration hopes that the meeting can be “an opportunity to resume talks between the South and the North and restore inter-Korean relations.”
But the unification minister said the two Koreas will still “focus on discussing” Pyongyang’s participation in PyeongChang Olympics due, above all, to timing.
When asked how Seoul would respond if North Korea suggests a differing time, venue, or format for the meeting, Cho suggested that the Moon administration would review the issue from a “positive position.”
“The government, once again, expressed its willingness to engage in dialogue with the North regardless of the timing, venue, and format.”
Cho also clarified that there had been no inter-Korean contact even at unofficial-levels regarding Kim’s suggestion to hold a meeting over the Olympics, adding his statement was made in response to the North Korean leader’s speech.
While ruling out the possibility of under-the-table contact between the two Koreas, Cho said the South Korean government made the decision to propose inter-Korean talks while “closely consulting with concerned countries including the U.S.”
But the unification minister didn’t elaborate on a possible delay in annual joint military exercises between the ROK and the U.S.
He said there are no further details “at the current stage” since South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that Washington is “reviewing” his suggestion to delay military exercises if the North stops making provocations until the upcoming PyeongChang Olympic Games.
Fyodor Tertitskiy, an NK Pro analyst, said it is “likely” that a high-level government meeting would take place, but warned that if Seoul “insists on taking on the nuclear issue as well,” it could result in no talks taking place at all.
If talks go ahead, he said that the DPRK side might make it conditional.
“The DPRK may request it being held on North Korean soil or in one of the neutral buildings standing directly at the Military Demarcation line instead of the Freedom House of South Korea,” he said.
“Whether the meeting will yield any results is less certain, as the North may make demands for concessions from the South in exchange for their participation in the Olympics.”
The announcement came after President Moon asked the Ministry of Unification (MOU) and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST) to “restore the South-North dialogue quickly” at a cabinet meeting held early on Tuesday.
The President also called for the two ministries to “come up with the follow-up measures as soon as possible to realize the participation of a North Korean delegation in the PyeongChang Olympics.”
But Moon emphasized that an improvement in inter-Korean relations “can’t be” dealt with seperate from Seoul’s efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.
He urged the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) to “consult closely with allies and the international community” to solve the two issues “at the same time.”
Meanwhile, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) on Tuesday repeated its July 2017 proposal to hold military talks with its Northern counterparts in order to ease military tensions.
“We’ve been waiting for North Korea’s response,” defense ministry spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo told assembled media during a regular news briefing.
The South Korean government suggested holding talks with the North with the purpose of stopping “all acts of hostility on the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)” on July 21 at Tongilgak on the North Korean side of Panmunjom.
Seoul also made a proposal to hold an inter-Korean meeting for families separated by the Korean War as a follow-up measure to Moon’s Berlin Initiative speech delivered in July 2017.
The defense ministry suggested that Seoul wouldn’t make another proposal when asked whether the North should make a “specific action” to hold the meeting between the South and North Korean military authorities.
“Yes, we also made the suggestions about the timing and place at that time. We’ve been waiting for the North to give a specific answer to this part,” Choi said.
Edited by Chad O’Carroll
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