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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korea has withdrawn its personnel from the inter-Korean joint liaison office at the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), South Korean Vice Minister of Unification Chun Hae-sung announced on Friday.
Speaking at a special news briefing, Chun said Pyongyang had this morning notified the South that it would “withdraw [staff] in accordance with the direction of the superior authority.”
“The government regrets the North’s decision to pull out,” the vice unification minister told assembled media. “We hope that the inter-Korean joint liaison office will be normally operated, as agreed to between the two Koreas, when the North returns at the earliest possible time.”
Pyongyang did not provide any specific reason for the withdrawal, he added, saying the North Korean staff had taken some documents with them. South Korean equipment remains at the office, he said.
In spite of the pullout, South Korea plans to operate the office as usual over the weekend: a total of 25 ROK staff, including nine officials and 16 maintenance staff, will work at the facility on Saturday and Sunday.
“The South Korean office will continue its operations,” Chun said, stressing that Seoul will proceed with normal cross-border travel procedures “as usual” on Monday in discussion with the North.
The North Koreans “will not mind the South remaining in the office,” an accompanying unification ministry statement said, with the DPRK set to “notify” Seoul of “further practical matters in the future.”
When asked about the reason for the sudden withdrawal, the vice unification minister declined to make any comment, saying the North’s decision to withdraw would make the discussion of pending issues between the two Koreas “difficult.”
These include plans for video reunions between families separated by the Korean War, agreed to in September’s Pyongyang Joint Declaration.
“The operation of the liaison office should be normalized expeditiously, and we will strive to have consultation over the issues without a long postponement,” he said.
Pyongyang is yet to respond to Seoul’s requests for their staff to return to the office, Chun added.
Despite this, the South Korean government does not consider the pullout of North Korean personnel as representing an “annulment of agreements” between the two Koreas, Chun stressed.
“We believe it is necessary for us to understand and make a judgement on the situation having more time,” he said, explaining that the two Koreas still maintain military communications lines.
“We will take actions while watching the situation a little more, instead of making a prejudgment.”
The Blue House also on Friday afternoon confirmed that the standing committee of South Korea’s National Security Council (NSC) had been convened Friday by director of the presidential National Security Office (NSO) Chung Eui-yong to discuss the North’s decision to withdraw from the joint liaison office.
The move represents a major blow to the South Korean government’s long-standing efforts to normalize relations with the DPRK, and comes just weeks after a landmark North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi failed to produce an agreement.
South Korea has since that summit insisted that it will push ahead with economic cooperation plans with the North, though stressed that any initiatives would need to take place in compliance with international sanctions.
North Korean in recent weeks, however, has stepped up pressure on South Korea, with a string of outer-track outlet editorials on Thursday and Friday accusing Seoul of excessive acquiescence to the United States.
“The South Korean authorities have been under grave apprehensions since the second DPRK-U.S. summit took place,” the outer-track outlet Meari said. “How can the South Korean authorities, which cannot do anything without the U.S.’s approval and instruction, play the role of mediator and facilitator?”
One expert told NK News on Friday that North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the office was “entirely predictable” given these recent developments.
“Like any ostensible ‘trust-building mechanism’ between the two Koreas, it was always likely to be used by the North to demonstrate its feelings at any given point,” said Chris Green, a North Korea analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“This places renewed pressure on South Korea to push the U.S. to shift its stance on the basis that if it does not, the gains of the Panmunjom and Pyongyang summits may be rolled back.”
The two Koreas opened the liaison office in September last year, with unification minister Cho Myoung-gyon at the time promising it would serve as a “channel for round-the-clock communication between the two Koreas” and a “cradle for the co-prosperity” between Seoul and Pyongyang.
North and South Korea previously agreed to use the office to exchange contacts, hold working-level consultations, and support exchanges, cooperation, and joint events in numerous fields, an inter-Korean agreement read.
Between September and December the office hosted a total of 327 meetings, including director-level and inter-Korean working-level talks, according to up-to-date data from the unification ministry.
Chun also on Friday confirmed that the two Koreas have not held what was originally meant to be a weekly director-level meeting at the joint liaison office for the past month.
The pause in meetings, which were previously held between liaison office directors vice minister Chun Hae-sung and vice-chairman of the DPRK Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC) Jon Jong Su, followed February’s surprise no-deal summit.
Chun has since the office’s opening travelled to the inter-Korean joint liaison office every Friday, holding meetings with Jon’s deputies Hwang Chung Song or Kim Kwang Song should the director not be available.
National holidays in the two Koreas had prevented meetings from taking place for the first two weeks of the month, with South Korea having marked the 100th anniversary of the March First Independence Movement on March 1 and the DPRK marking International Women’s Day on March 8.
Although Chun visited the liaison office last Friday, weekly talks did not take place.
Neither Kim and Hwang were present at the liaison office, Seoul said last week, adding that they had been unable to confirm the reason for their absence.
Another “temporary” acting director from the North Korean side was present, Chun said, though the two did not hold a formal meeting.
Meanwhile, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) on Friday confirmed to NK News that Seoul and Pyongyang have discussed plans to hold military talks.
The ROK military said it is waiting for a response from the DPRK side.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Ministry of Unification