South Korea and the U.S. held working group talks over North Korea issues in Seoul on Monday, with U.S. State Department official Alex Wong attending the talks amid a prolonged halt in negotiations with Pyongyang.
Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) did not indicate if the two sides discussed the issue of North Korean tourism — a topic which the South Korean government has been pushing in the new year — but it appears that inter-Korean cooperation was one of the topics addressed in Monday’s meeting.
Referring to the talks as a “Director-General level meeting,” a MOFA official told NK News on Monday that the two sides “broadly discussed pending issues regarding the North’s nuclear program and North Korea issues in general, including inter-Korean relations and trends in U.S-DPRK dialogue.”
Alex Wong, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for North Korea in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the U.S. State Department, arrived in Seoul the previous day for the meeting with his South Korean counterpart Rhee Dong-yeol on Monday.
When asked if the issue of South Korean “independent tourism” to North Korea will be discussed between the two sides, Seoul’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) said that it is not one of the topics that ought to be “consulted” with the U.S.
“However, I understand that we are explaining our government’s position [regarding tourism], in terms of cooperation with the U.S. side,” added MOU spokesperson Yoh Sangkey during Monday’s regular press briefing.
Speaking before the meeting, the MOU spokesperson added that the details of inter-Korean cooperation, put forth by South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his New Year’s Address last month, were set to be discussed in Monday’s working group meeting.
“I understand that issues such as reconnecting railways and roads, and cooperation in the border area, are being discussed” in the talks, explained Yoh.
It remains to be seen if the two sides discussed the logistics of South Korea pursuing independent tourism to the North, including the problem of potential sanctions violations.
The Wong-Rhee meeting on Monday comes weeks after U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris said Seoul should take the idea of independent tourism “and run it through the Working Group,” claiming that potential sanctions violations could emerge due to items potential South Korean tourists would bring in their luggage into North Korea.
The working group was created in October 2018 to coordinate North Korea-related issues between Seoul and Washington, though South Korea in recent months has refrained from using the term.
North Korean state media outlets have indirectly criticized the vehicle, reporting on arguments and protests in South Korea about how the working group should be disbanded, and criticizing how it blocks progress on inter-Korean projects due to South Korea “asking for U.S. approval” in matters such as the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex and railway reconnection.
Seoul, however, appears to remain optimistic about South Korea’s role in diplomacy.
“The South Korean government, too, hopes for progress in DPRK-U.S. relations,” the MOU spokesperson told reporters on Monday.
“We are expecting that the progress in DPRK-U.S. relations will be helpful for the way forward on problems on the Korean peninsula… The South Korean government is seeking what role it can actively play” for diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang, he said.
Alex Wong is staying in Seoul until Wednesday, and is reportedly set to pay a courtesy call on Lee Do-hoon as well — South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs.