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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
U.S. officials on Tuesday offered “strong support” for a previously-delayed joint survey on inter-Korean rail cooperation, South Korean chief nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon said.
The comments followed the launch of a U.S.-ROK working group on DPRK issues in Washington DC, led by Lee and U.S. Special Representative on North Korea Stephen Biegun.
“The U.S. side expressed full and strong support for the joint survey of inter-Korean railway lines,” Lee said at a press conference following the meeting in a statement carried by Seoul’s Yonhap News Agency.
The South Korean government previously admitted to differences with the U.S. over the joint on-site survey, which the two Koreas are set to conduct ahead of connecting railways on the west and east coast of peninsula.
The two Koreas at high-level talks held in October agreed to hold a groundbreaking ceremony for rail and road connection and modernization on the peninsula between late November and early December.
To this end, they were originally scheduled to conduct a joint on-site survey of the Gyeongui and Donghae railway lines in late October and early November.
Lee, who serves as Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs at the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), said Tuesday that both sides “had balanced and sufficient discussion on their agenda.”
“During the meeting of working-group, we discussed all issues concerning inter-Korean and North Korean nuclear program, including denuclearization, the peace regime, and South-North relations,” he added.
The establishment of the ROK-U.S. working group also aims to “regularize bilateral consultation,” he added.
Lee was also briefed by Biegun on ongoing DPRK-U.S. nuclear negotiations, with Washington reportedly working to get previously-canceled talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol back on track.
The U.S. side also conveyed their plans to hold a second DPRK-U.S. summit “early next year.”
Tuesday also U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stress that peace on the Korean peninsula and inter-Korean cooperation must move in tandem with North Korea’s denuclearization.
The Ministry of Unification (MOU) on Wednesday declined to directly comment on Pompeo’s comments, which come amid concerns about growing daylight between the allies on the issue.
“We held the meeting of the ROK-U.S. working group. And there has been close coordination between the ROK and the U.S. in terms of inter-Korean cooperation,” unification ministry spokesperson Baik Tae-hyun told a news briefing on Wednesday.
“We will make the relevant preparations in coordination with concerned countries including the U.S. so that inter-Korean agreements, including a joint survey of railway and the groundbreaking ceremony, can be faithfully implemented.”
Baik also said the MOU will “continuously take part” in meetings of the ROK-U.S. working group, while adding that the participating ministries will vary depending on the topic under discussion.
Multiple South Korean outlets have reported citing an unnamed government source that the U.S. and the ROK will coordinate on the “technical details” of the railway project – including whether any of the necessary cross-border goods transfers could violate sanctions.
“It’s possible the technical delay could relate to goods, materials or technology for the railroad project which may fall within the scope of the international sanctions regime,” Chad O’Carroll, Managing Director of the Korea Risk Group, which owns and operates NK News, said.
“The nature of UNSCR 2397 technically means that the ROK would need sanctions exemptions to export any industrial equipment, machinery, transportation vehicles or industrial metals to North Korea.”
UN Security Council Resolution 2397, adopted in December last year, bans all member states from supplying or transferring “all industrial machinery (HS codes 84 and 85), transportation vehicles (HS codes 86 through 89), and iron, steel, and other metals (HS codes 72 through 83).”
“This effectively rules out anything with a metal component, making it very hard to imagine how one could proceed with railroad rehabilitation. Further, there are also U.S. Treasury rules to think about, which are extremely wide-ranging in nature,” O’Carroll said.
Seoul was previously granted an exemption by the UN sanctions committee to allow for the renovation of a facility intended for family reunions at the Mount Kumgang resort, as well as the restoration of military communications lines between the two Koreas.
The Moon administration previously insisted it was “unnecessary” to request an exemption from international sanctions to allow the opening of a refurbished joint liaison office at the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), however.
In spite of the projects’ postponement, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport’s (MOLIT) Korea Rail Network Authority is set to conduct preliminary research into a potential amendment of construction standards for use in inter-Korean rail connection and renovation.
The MOLIT’s National Geographic Information Institute (NGII), too, plans to carry out detailed research into regions where rail and road modernization and connection is set to take place, according to a proposal seen by NK News this week.
The NGII is seeking a subcontractor for a six-month project to draw up a digital topographic map of areas where the two Koreas connect and where railways on the east and west coast can be modernized.
Seoul will also create digital elevation model (DEM) and orthophotograph of the 1150 square kilometer regions in a project that has been allocated around KRW3.33 billion (USD$2.9 million).
The NGII said the research is “urgent,” given the two Koreas’ agreement in September to hold a groundbreaking ceremony within the year.
In its proposal, the organization stressed the need for creating “up-to-date spatial information on North Korean regions” to support inter-Korean economic cooperation and land development.
Edited by Oliver Hotham