South Korean unification minister Cho Myoung-gyon departed the ROK on Tuesday morning for a five-day visit to United States, in which he is widely expected to hold talks with high-ranking government officials and experts on North Korean issues.
The visit is the first of its kind by a sitting unification minister since a trip to the U.S. by then-minister Ryoo Kihl-jae in December 2014, and will see Cho visit Washington DC and New York for the Ministry of Unification (MOU)-hosted Korea Global Forum.
But while local media has reported that Cho is likely to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his trip, the State Department has so far declined to confirm whether any such talks will take place.
The minister is also expected to hold talks with Senator Ed Royce, Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and visit the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) for discussions on North Korea.
Cho’s visit comes amid a growing gap between South Korea and the United States over engagement with North Korea, with Seoul increasingly pushing to build economic ties with Pyongyang while DPRK-U.S. talks stall.
The unification minister at a hearing at the National Assembly late last month admitted to “differences” between the allies over plans for an on-site survey on inter-Korean road and rail cooperation, agreed to at high-level talks with his DPRK counterpart on October 15. The two Koreas met to discuss that project on Monday.
Against this backdrop, one expert told NK News, the unification minister’s visit this week is significant.
“We have a South Korean administration that is forging ahead with inter-Korean engagement and a U.S. Secretary of State who is both deeply focused on North Korea policy and skeptical of the value of inter-Korean relations,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department Korea Desk Officer.
“It would be almost surprising if Pompeo decided not to meet with Cho,” he added, saying “there’s a lot of room for a tense and uncomfortable discussion” should the meeting go ahead.
“Cho will probably want greater U.S. buy-in for Moon’s inter-Korean efforts,” Oba continued. “Pompeo will want to discourage an ambitious approach to inter-Korean relations and warn of the risks of loosening any sanctions without progress on denuclearization.”
“Maybe the optics will look nice, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much the two can really align on.”
That perceived gap last month saw the allies recently agree to form a working group to strengthen coordination on diplomacy, the denuclearization process, sanctions implementation, and inter-Korean cooperation.
North Korean media on Friday denounced the plans, warning the new organization was part of a U.S. attempt to “ruin” inter-Korean cooperation projects and accusing South Korea of “blindly obeying” Washington’s demands.
Pyongyang has since then continued to step up pressure on Seoul, with a commentary in ruling party organ the Rodong Sinmun on Monday condemning the resumption last week of joint ROK-U.S. marine drills as a violation of September’s inter-Korean military agreement.
The unification minister’s departure to the U.S. also follow the publishing on Monday of a major report by CSIS purporting to identify 13 undeclared DPRK-run ballistic missile operating bases – claims that one expert said would likely make his calls for increased engagement with Pyongyang a hard sell.
“The Moon administration is wedged between the intransigence of Pyongyang and Washington,” said Soo Kim, a former CIA North Korea analyst.
“Just today, we learned that Pyongyang has more than a dozen underground missile operating bases,” she continued. “It is incumbent upon Seoul to convince the Trump administration that progress in inter-Korean relations could help ease tensions and bring North Korea back to the negotiating table on denuclearization.”
Cho will return to South Korea on Saturday.
Featured image: Ministry of Unification (MOU)