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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The South Korean government will push ahead will plans to open an inter-Korean liaison office at the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) this month, the country’s foreign ministry said on Thursday, judging it “unnecessary” to request a formal exemption from international sanctions.
Ministry spokesperson Noh Kyu-duk reiterated Seoul’s stance that the opening of the joint liaison office, set to host resident representatives from both sides, is not a violation of international sanctions.
“The [transfer] of materials and equipment and power supply are to operate the office and ensure the convenience of our personnel,” Noh told assembled media during a regular news briefing.
“Therefore, our judgement is that it doesn’t undermine the purpose of sanctions on North Korea as it doesn’t provide any economic benefits for North Korea.”
When asked if the Moon administration will open the liaison office as planned despite the issue of sanctions remaining unresolved, Noh provided an affirmative response.
“Yes,” the MOFA spokesperson said. “The government will push forward with the opening of the liaison office in close coordination with the U.S. so that it doesn’t [undermine] the purpose of sanctions on North Korea.”
The spokesperson said that Seoul “has been discussing with the U.S. while providing an explanation to the international community.”
When contacted by NK News on Thursday, a MOFA official confirmed that Seoul would not be asking the UN Security Council sanctions committee to grant an exemption.
“As the South-North liaison office doesn’t undermine the purpose of sanctions on North Korea, the government judges that it’s unnecessary to request an exemption from sanctions,” an official at the MOFA, who wished to remain anonymous, said.
The comments come a day after South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha told a hearing of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee that U.S. officials had told Seoul that their explanations on the sanctions issue were not “satisfactory.”
Tuesday, however, saw an official at MOFA tell local outlets that the Moon administration plans to open the office this month.
The South Korean President in a speech on August 15 suggested the office would open “in a few days,” it was “expected to be a permanent mission for both sides.”
Thursday saw the ROK presidential office dismiss the differences between the U.S. and the South on the issues as “minor” in response to the foreign minister’s comments.
“The great stream has been established and is flowing vigorously, and I don’t think the violation of sanctions at the South-North joint liaison office is either a hindrance or a barrier to such a vigorous stream,” Kim Eui-keum, a presidential spokesperson, said during a regular briefing.
Kim then said there are 24 embassies in Pyongyang, arguing that the establishment of a joint liaison office in Kaesong represents a “far lower-level” of communications and cooperation with the DPRK government.
The presidential spokesperson then said the liaison office might be developed into a permanent mission and ROK embassy in Pyongyang.
Monday saw the presidential spokesperson say Seoul has notified Pyongyang of its preferred schedule and date for the opening, and that the North would suggest a date taking into account its “domestic political conditions.”
Ongoing developments in Seoul’s efforts to open the liaison office have raised concerns that the operations could violate, among other measures, Security Council Resolution 2397, which prohibits transfers of machinery and electrical equipment.
South Korean lawmaker Cheong Yang-seog on Tuesday said the South Korean government had supplied 82,918 kg of oil and diesel to the North between June and July, citing data provided from the Korea Customs Service.
But it remains unclear how much oil and diesel were used for renovation and repairs of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Discussion Office within the KIC.
Seoul began to supply the electricity on a trial basis to facilities at the liaison office earlier in the month, the unification ministry said: returning ROK-made electricity to the site for the first time since the South’s unilateral withdrawal from the KIC in 2016.
The power supply was for use by South Korean staff and for the operation of the liaison office, the MOU said, insisting that the North Koreans would not be using the electricity.
Monday’s briefing also saw the presidential spokesperson give four reasons why Seoul believes the office wouldn’t violate sanctions.
“Firstly, the establishment of the liaison office is the most basic project to alleviate military tensions and establish peace on the Korean peninsula,” he said.
Kim said the second reason is that the maintenance of the round-the-clock communication system will “contribute to promoting nuclear negotiations between the North and the U.S.”
The purpose of imposing sanctions and opening the office are the same, he said, as both seek to speed up North Korean denuclearization, adding that the transfer of equipment and power would not provide any economic gains for the DPRK government.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Anthony Surace’s Flickr