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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.
Several North Korean officials returned to the inter-Korean liaison office at the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) on Monday morning to work, the ROK Ministry of Unification (MOU) said, in a surprise move that comes just three days after Pyongyang abruptly withdrew staff from the facility.
“Some of the North Korean staff members are working at the South-North Joint Liaison Office starting from today 8:10 A.M.,” an MOU official who wished to remain anonymous told media.
Speaking to the ROK side, DPRK staff members reportedly told them: “we came to do our shift as usual today.”
The unification ministry said between four or five working-level DPRK staff were at the office on Monday, though was unable to confirm whether the North Korean deputies to the office’s director had returned.
“The South and the North held a consultation at the liaison office this morning and will continue to operate the office as usual,” the MOU official added.
The North Korean side have reportedly told their Southern counterparts “that the joint liaison office should implement projects in accordance with the inter-Korean joint declarations remains unchanged.”
As result, the South Korean unification ministry said it believes that the “joint inter-Korean liaison office will operate normally due to the return of the North Korean side” and continue to carry out its day-to-day work.
Although Pyongyang appears to have dispatched a small number of officials to the office on Monday morning, the unification ministry said it still needs to find out the reason for last week’s surprise withdrawal from the liaison office.
MOU spokesperson Baik Tae-hyun on Monday said 39 South Koreans, including 11 officials and 28 maintenance staff, crossed the inter-Korean border en route to the liaison office on Monday morning.
They join the 25 personnel — nine officials and 16 maintenance staff — who remained at the site over the weekend, in a move that Seoul said was part of “efforts to operate and normalize the Kaesong office.”
Baik also said North Korean officials from the General Bureau for Central Guidance to the Development of the Special Zone — formally charged with managing projects at the now-shuttered KIC — had been staying at the office.
When asked for clarification by NK News on Monday afternoon, the unification ministry admitted that it had made a mistake and stressed that no officials from that organization were present.
Speaking at the Monday press briefing, Baik told press that Pyongyang and Seoul had discussed pending issues between the two sides at the office over the weekend, including cross-border travel.
The DPRK side, Baik said, had approved a total of 54 South Koreans to cross the border to travel to the Kaesong area.
Although it is unclear if Seoul and Pyongyang spoke through face-to-face contact, Baik said the two Koreas had communicated “without any major problem.”
Facilities at the office, including communications and electricity, are being operated “normally,” he added.
It is unclear what has motivated this volte-face from Pyongyang, which sees the DPRK appear to partially reverse a decision widely interpreted as a major blow to the South Korean government’s efforts to normalize relations with the North.
But the decision to return to the site does follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise decision on Friday to reverse planned “large scale sanctions” against North Korea, a move a White House spokesperson said was motivated by the fact that the President “likes Chairman Kim.”
North Korean media on Monday morning offered little sign of flexibility in the face of this conciliatory move from the U.S., criticizing South Korea for its stated goal of pushing forward “inter-Korean cooperation projects within the framework of sanctions on North Korea.”
In an op-ed carried by the Uriminzokkiri website, the outlet said the two Koreas would not be able to proceed inter-Korean cooperation projects “properly” within the sanctions framework, the reported result of the “unnecessary intervention of foreign power.”
“This is such a shameful statement which even lacks rudimentary-level of self-esteem, and is another case of self-contradiction,” the article, written by the author Jang Il, said.
“The argument of the South Korean officials is irresponsible behavior as it runs counter to the spirit of the inter-Korean agreements.”
“This is the solemn declaration pledged before all nations, which is beyond the simple agreement made between the authorities, and therefore this is an obligation that should be kept under any circumstance,” it said.
Another externally-focused online outlet on Monday said the South Korean government had “repeated obsolete contentions, including the need for close coordination with the U.S. and the international community” on the resumption of inter-Korean cooperation at the KIC and the tourism resort in Mount Kumgang.
“The South Korean authorities still adhere to coordination with the foreign countries over the issues of inter-Korean cooperation, and it is the wrong behavior that is contrary to the spirit of the North-South declarations,” the Meari reported.
The Moon Jae-in government, author Ko Chong Myong said, had “consistently taking an irresponsible attitude” towards the implementation inter-Korean declarations.
Saturday also saw the DPRK Today, another externally-oriented online outlet, warn that Seoul’s collaboration with Washington would lead to “indignity and humiliation.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Ministry of Unification