South Korea’s unification minister nominee Lee In-young stated on Thursday that North Korea appears to have left doors open for dialogue with the U.S., despite a deadlock in denuclearization talks.
Top North Korean official Kim Yo Jong’s recent statement — in which she said Kim Jong Un gave her “permission” to obtain DVD recordings of U.S. July 4 celebrations — was the proof, Lee said during a confirmation hearing at Seoul’s National Assembly.
“While leaving room for dialogue, [Kim Yo Jong] was also implying that she’s the channel for such dialogue,” Lee stated.
However, the current stalemate in U.S.-DPRK dialogue is still “highly possible to continue until the U.S. presidential election” or even longer, Lee said, adding that the two countries’ differing visions on a denuclearization deal pose a significant challenge.
To break the stall in talks, the nominee said that he “won’t hesitate” to visit Pyongyang as a special envoy and meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if the opportunity arises.
If he does get to meet Kim Jong Un, Lee plans to first suggest a full-blown resumption of dialogue and bring up the issue of humanitarian exchanges, he said.
He also plans to encourage both U.S. and North Korean leaders to improve their relations as soon as possible, even if it means both sides can only “gain 70% to 80%” of what they want.
If they do not act soon, the “golden time” for a deal will be lost, Lee added.
When asked whether or not he would be willing to confront Kim Jong Un and ask for reparations to the recently demolished inter-Korean joint liaison office, Lee dithered and said that “lodging a strong protest” may cause conflict and undermine the goal of resolving soured inter-Korean relations.
However, Lee suggested several new ideas, including asking North Korea to provide land for a potential South Korean mission or embassy to compensate for the destroyed liaison office. This can also lead to further progressive steps, such as adding “trade representatives” in areas such as Sinuiju, Rajin-Sonbong and Hyesan, Lee said.
Thursday’s confirmation hearing, which was conducted by lawmakers of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, covered a variety of topics ranging from Lee’s vision for inter-Korean or U.S.-DPRK relations to Lee’s ideological orientation.
Regarding inter-Korean relations, Lee stressed that the two Koreas should resume dialogue despite the deadlock in U.S.-DPRK talks and other “international limitations.”
“It would be desirable to expand and strengthen the peace process and the role of the Korean Peninsula as the ‘driver,'” Lee stated, emphasizing Seoul as an independent actor.
He agreed with a lawmaker’s argument that mandating South Korean citizens to report and seek approval from authorities when they want to contact North Koreans is “unconstitutional.”
Meanwhile, the unification nominee deflected a question from defector-lawmaker Thae Yong-ho, who asked about the country’s National Security Law. Lee responded that now is not the right time to consider discarding the law, especially “with so many pending issues present, such as COVID-19.”
Earlier this week, Lee also suggested the idea of “small trade” in the form of a “barter,” giving the example of trading the North’s Daedonggang beer or Mount Kumgang water for South Korean rice.
When asked whether this would violate sanctions against the DPRK, Lee argued that water, liquor, rice or medicines are not subject to such sanctions.
“Ship-to-ship transfers of those items, however, could be subject to a review,” Lee stated.
Lee ultimately emphasized his vision of seeing a reunified Korea by 2045 — an idea previously pitched by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Lee also expressed hope of the two countries holding a joint Olympics in 2032.
DIALING UP MINISTRY POWER
Thursday’s confirmation hearing also saw multiple lawmakers from both aisles urging Lee to make the Ministry of Unification (MOU) more active in its role on inter-Korean affairs.
It was often overshadowed by Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and National Intelligence Service (NIS), they said.
This comes as another nominee — Park Jie-won, tapped by President Moon to be the next chief of National Intelligence Service (NIS) — awaits his hearing.
Lee responded by emphasizing that the Ministry of Unification “should be the core” when it comes to handling “open, formal and public areas in inter-Korean relations.”
Lee also pledged to further involve the Ministry of Unification with the resettlement of North Korean defectors, who are otherwise handled mainly by the NIS during the initial process entering South Korea.
SOUTH KOREA AS THE “FACILITATOR”
During Thursday’s hearing, Lee urged North Korea to stop “straining” its relationship with the South just because of impasses with the United States.
Lee’s remarks, however, were met with criticism from some conservative lawmakers, who accused him of prioritizing inter-Korean cooperation over progress in the U.S.-DPRK talks and the enforcement of sanctions. Some called his view “unrealistic.”
Lawmaker Chung Jin-suk, for example, fired back by stating that Lee is “vowing to ‘creatively’ violate international and U.S. sanctions” while laying aside the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Lee nevertheless defended his stance, stating that South Korea can play the role of a “facilitator” and that inter-Korean exchanges can help build further trust between Pyongyang and Seoul.
Meanwhile, Lee did underscore the importance of a U.S.-ROK alliance. Unlike his arguments as a student 30 years ago, Lee said he now believes that the U.S. military should stay present on the Korean peninsula for now, but preferably with downsized joint drills in August.
AN ALLEGED DISINTEREST IN HUMAN RIGHTS
Conservative lawmakers were quick to criticize Lee on Thursday, accusing the unification minister nominee of turning a blind eye to the issue of North Korean human rights abuses.
Defector-lawmaker Ji Seong-ho — who was elected to the National Assembly this April — showed photos of three South Koran men detained in the North and asked Lee if he recognized them. Lee responded in the negative: “I do not know, but I will learn about them today,” he said.
Ji told Lee that South Korea is neglecting its responsibility to protect its citizens detained in the North, further criticizing the Ministry of Unification’s past stance on this issue.
Lee later explained that he was indeed aware of six South Koreans detained in North Korea, but did not recognize their faces. In the end, he vowed to try to bring the detainees back to the South.
Ji told NK News on Thursday that he was shocked to hear that Lee did not know the faces of the South Korean detainees in the North.
“It seems because he was focusing on exchanges, cooperation and humanitarian assistance, he did not pay enough attention to issues such as North Korean human rights and detainee problems,” Ji said by phone.
Lee’s altercation with another defector-politician, Thae Yong-ho, made headlines in South Korea on Thursday as well: Thae asked Lee if it’s true that he once pledged allegiance to a Kim Il Sung portrait as a student organization leader many years ago.
“That is an exaggerated story,” Lee said, while Thae claimed that he heard about the student organization’s pro-North work while in the DPRK in the 1980s.
The debate got heated when Thae asked Lee if he had or had not “converted” from North Korea’s Juche ideology, further demanding that Lee account for his beliefs.
“I never believed [Juche ideology] at that time, nor do I now,” Lee said, adding that Thae’s question was inappropriate under South Korea’s constitution.
“Maybe North Korea forces you to convert your ideology … That question seems to show that you still lack understanding of South Korea’s democracy,” Lee told Thae, implying that the North Korean defector-politician still had more to learn about how South Korea works.
Nevertheless, National Assembly lawmaker Ji Seong-ho told NK News that Lee’s response to Thae was disappointing.
“That is wrong,” Ji said. “Saying that someone knows less because they came from the North is not fair. As lawmakers, they can ask about anything that citizens may want to know.”
Edited by Kelly Kasulis
South Korea's unification minister nominee Lee In-young stated on Thursday that North Korea appears to have left doors open for dialogue with the U.S., despite a deadlock in denuclearization talks.
Top North Korean official Kim Yo Jong's recent statement -- in which she said Kim Jong Un gave her "permission" to obtain DVD recordings of U.S. July 4 celebrations -- was the proof, Lee said during a confirmation hearing at Seoul's National Assembly.