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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
South Korean proposals surrounding possible “independent tourism” to North Korea by its citizens should be discussed with the United States, Ambassador Harry Harris told NK News at a press event in Seoul on Thursday.
The proposals, which were raised several times in the past week – including by President Moon Jae-in — suggest the South Korean government may be considering allowing citizens to soon apply to go on tours to North Korea on a private basis.
“We have an entity whose job is to look just at that — and that entity is the U.S.-Korea Working Group,” Harris said, referencing the vehicle created in October 2018 to coordinate DPRK-related issues.
“So Korea, I believe, should take this idea they have and run it through the Working Group.”
But while conceding that “tourism is allowed under sanctions,” Harris warned that problems could possibly emerge due to items contained in luggage carried by South Koreans into North Korea.
“What you take with you when you tour, some of those things might not be allowed under sanctions, for example,” he said.
“And so, in order to avoid a misunderstanding later that could trigger U.S. sanctions or UN sanctions, it’s better to run this through the Working Group.”
American concerns about items contained in the luggage of South Korean visitors to North Korea are not new, contributing to delays on some inter-Korean cooperation projects – such as journalists hoping to carry laptops across the land border – last year.
Furthermore, the route taken by future potential South Korean tourists to North Korea – even under the guise of “independent tourism” – could also cause problems, Harris said.
“How do the tourists get there? Do they go through China? Do they go through the DMZ? That means the UN Command is involved. How do you get back?”
Overall, Harris said that because “we’ve been at armistice for almost 70 years,” there would be “ample time to run this through the Working Group so there are no surprises at the back end.”
Asked by an AFP reporter whether South Korean efforts to overcome stalled diplomacy with initiatives such as private tours was helpful given recent developments, Harris said he believed the South Korean President’s position was “encouraging”.
“His optimism creates hope and that’s a positive thing,” Harris explained. “We would not be where we are today were it not for President Moon’s vision back in 2018.”
But Harris said that South Korea had a responsibility to keep Washington informed of its inter-Korean plans.
“Things should be done in consultation with the U.S.,” he said. “Not because we’re in a position to approve or disapprove, but (because) we are Korea’s only ally.
“We do have 28,500 American troops here (and) the American taxpayer does spend billions of dollars to defend this country.”
Harris said, however, that his remarks were not intended to “suggest we not being consulted.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham