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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Seoul and Pyongyang will open a joint inter-Korean liaison office with “round-the-clock” communication channels on Friday, the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) announced on Wednesday.
The two Koreas are set to operate the liaison office with resident representatives at the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), ahead of the third meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next week in Pyongyang.
Seoul will utilize the liaison office’s “round-the-clock communication channels” with Pyongyang for contacts and negotiations to discuss a variety of issues concerning inter-Korean relations, the unification ministry said in a written statement.
The head of the liaison office simultaneously serves as the representative for talks and negotiations with North Korea, the MOU said, adding such inter-Korean meeting could take place at any time with the aim to “resolve major issues.”
The inaugural director also will be in charge of conveying messages from both leaders “if necessary,” even though the two Koreas installed a hotline between Moon and Kim in April before the third inter-Korean summit took place.
South Korean Vice-Minister of Unification Chun Hae-sung has been tapped to lead the office, while Pyongyang notified that a vice-chairman of the DPRK’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) will serve as chief, without sharing further details.
Baik Tae-hyun, the unification ministry spokesperson, said both sides agreed to appoint a vice-ministerial-level official as their director, considering that the role will entail delivery of messages from Moon and Kim, who first announced the establishment of the liaison office in the Panmunjom Declaration.
The North and South Korean heads of the liaison office will have a meeting once a week, while working-level talks will be held on a frequent basis.
The issues related to the inter-Korean talks and events, joint research, and exchanges – as well as “tasks necessary for the development of inter-Korean relations” – will be discussed at the liaison office.
Through the liaison office, the Moon administration also plans to support inter-Korean cooperation and exchanges in the fields of economy, social culture, and humanitarianism, among others.
The unification ministry also said information on the North’s businesspersons and officials engaged in inter-Korean exchanges will be supported and provided through the liaison office.
The office also appears to be the venue where the North and the South will discuss any potential economic cooperation.
At the liaison office, Seoul will support “joint research and investigation, civilian exchanges, trade, and other items based on cooperation among relevant ministries,” the MOU said in the statement.
Seoul will “push ahead with forestry cooperation, the plan for a new economic map of the Korean peninsula, and joint investigation and research on railways and roads as the priority” while officials from the relevant ministries are on duty residing at the KIC.
The “New Economic Map” Initiative — which was unveiled in July last year — is one of the major policy goals of the Moon administration.
That initiative would see three economic belts connect the two Koreas: an energy-resource belt on the East Sea coast, an industrial-logistics and distribution-transportation belt on the West Sea coast, and an environment-tourism belt at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
The two Koreas also proceeded with a joint on-site survey for connection, modernization, and utilization of railways and roads as well as forest disease and pest control.
Spokesperson Baik later explained the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT), the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST), the Korea Forest Service (KFS), and others plan to dispatch staff.
Despite Seoul originally planning to open the liaison office in August, both sides agreed during the visit to Pyongyang by South Korean special envoys last week to open it before the fifth inter-Korean summit is held.
Amid growing questions over whether the operation of the office complies with international sanctions, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs in August said it was “unnecessary” to request a formal exemption from the UN Security Council sanctions committee.
Despite remaining questions over whether Washington and Seoul reached an agreement on the liaison office, the unification ministry emphasized in the statement that it will be the “basis for the development of sustainable inter-Korean relations” and facilitate now-stalled U.S.-DPRK nuclear talks.
“The liaison office will become a round-the-clock consultation and communication channel for improving inter-Korean relations, alleviating military tensions, and establishing peace on the Korean peninsula,” it said.
“It is expected that Inter-Korean relations will be handled in a stable manner through 24-hour communication 365 days a year, and [the outcome] will contribute to making progress in nuclear negotiations between the North and the U.S.”
The ministry also reiterated its plan to develop the joint liaison office into a permanent mission for both sides “considering the progress in inter-Korean relations” and to operate a “round-the-clock and high-level consultation channel in each Pyongyang and Seoul.”
During Wednesday’s press briefing, Baik explained the two Koreas have come to a “consensus” about the establishment of a permanent mission through inter-Korean contacts, including high-level talks.
The liaison office will be operated after the two Koreas hold an opening ceremony this Friday, where South Korean unification minister Cho Myoung-gyon, chairman of the CPRC Ri Son Gwon, and other officials are expected to attend.
In the statement, the MOU said Seoul and Pyongyang completed their consultations over the agreement on the composition and operation of the joint liaison office on August 23.
Both sides agreed to dispatch a group of 15 to 20 staff to operate the office between Monday and Friday, but to also have an emergency communication channel.
Featured Image: South Korean government