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The Peninsula

The Politics of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office

Published September 7, 2018
Author: Yonoho Kim
Category: Inter-Korean

By Yonho Kim 

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s speech on Korea’s 73rd Liberation Day revealed his strategic approach to resuscitating the stalled denuclearization negotiations between the United States and North Korea. By saying that “advancement in inter-Korean relations is the driving force behind denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Moon signaled Seoul’s determination to start to implement the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration adopted by the leaders of two Koreas. At the historic summit at the border truce village of Panmunjom, President Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to improve and cultivate inter-Korean relations “in a more active manner” while committing to “the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” In his Liberation Day speech, Moon touted the progress on the two Koreas’ efforts to completely cease all hostile acts against each other supplemented by restoration of regular military communication channels. He also characterized the upcoming establishment of an inter-Korean liaison office as “very meaningful.” In his mind reliable and constant communication channels with Pyongyang are the very stepping stone for groundbreaking advancement in inter-Korean relations.

In the Panmunjom Declaration the North and South envisioned a joint liaison office with resident representatives stationed in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, home to the Kaesong Industrial Complex which was shut down in 2016. The liaison office is to “facilitate close consultation between the authorities as well as smooth exchanges and cooperation between the peoples.” The Moon government expects the office to develop into a permanent mission for both Seoul and Pyongyang, enabling around-the-clock communication with the North. Seoul also seems to regard the liaison office a springboard to future inter-Korean economic cooperation, including relaunching cross-peninsula railway and road projects and reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Considering the significance of the role to be played by the liaison office, South Korea reportedly even sought to have a vice-ministerial official or a senior presidential secretary installed in the office.

Seoul’s bold initiative had to face political controversy over the possible violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions against providing refined petroleum products to the North. South Korea sent refined oil and diesel fuel for electricity production in June and July to set up the liaison office. The Moon government was criticized for hastily making the move without clarification of the possible sanctions violation in advance. The conservatives were concerned that Moon’s ambitious plan to advance ties with the North would undermine Washington’s leverage in persuading Pyongyang to denuclearize. Indeed, U.S. officials privately expressed their concerns to their South Korean counterparts, emphasizing the need to make substantial progress on denuclearization ‘before’ the advancement of inter-Korean reconciliation projects, although the State Department’s official position is that “the improvement of relations between the North and South can’t advance separately from resolving North Korea’s nuclear program.” Furthermore, a senior U.S. official warned in an interview that opening the liaison office could violate both U.N. and U.S. sanctions against North Korea. The Moon government responded by stressing that the provision of energy for the liaison office is for the convenience of South Korean officials only, which does not constitute a violation of U.N. sanctions. The presidential spokesperson reiterated that the liaison office project aimed at bringing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula and that constant communication with the North would facilitate the denuclearization process.

President Moon seem to have assumed that the establishment of a liaison office would be followed by a positive sequencing of the denuclearization process, including his third summit with Kim in September, when he said in the Liberation Day speech “I hope that the implementation of the complete denuclearization of North Korea and corresponding comprehensive measures by the United States will be pursued quickly.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement of his upcoming fourth trip to Pyongyang on August 23 must have reinforced Moon’s hope and Pompeo’s trip, if successful, would have provided Seoul with a solid rationale for advancing inter-Korean relations. However, Pompeo’s trip was abruptly canceled by President Trump the next day. Trump cited a lack of progress in denuclearization talks with Pyongyang but that was exactly the reason Seoul tried to push ahead with the inter-Korean liaison office project. With the prospective sequencing unavailable, Seoul postponed the opening of the liaison office, which was scheduled for by the end of August.

The cancellation of Pompeo’s Pyongyang trip left Moon with both risk and opportunity. If he goes ahead with the third summit with Kim mainly focused on inter-Korean cooperation, he would run the risk of ignoring Trump’s concerns and creating a rift between the allies. However, the nuclear stalemate could also provide an opportunity for Moon to play the role of driver or mediator again. His decision to send his chief security advisor as a special envoy to Pyongyang was timely enough to open a window of opportunity to break the deadlock. Positive signs are Kim’s meeting with the special envoy, Chung Eui-yong, and Kim’s stated willingness to denuclearize by the end of Trump’s current term. Trump’s initial response on Twitter was positive when he appreciated Kim’s “unwavering faith in President Trump” and added “we will get it done together.” Unclear is how much of Kim’s messages relayed to Washington by Seoul factored in Trump’s tweet. Still, one can assume that the special envoy received positive messages from Kim given the fact that the date for the Pyongyang summit was fixed as September 18-20 and that the inter-Korean liaison office will open before the summit.

We have seen tension between the denuclearization process and advancement of inter-Korean relations while Moon and Trump pursue their own political agendas. The Moon government has considered the inter-Korean liaison office as a foundation of implementing the Panmunjom Declaration while trying hard to place the project in a positive sequencing of denuclearization. Special envoy Chung characterized opening the liaison office as the preparatory measure for the two Koreas “to discuss specific ways to build their mutual trust and prevent armed conflicts while continuing their ongoing talks on reducing military tension” at the Pyongyang summit. The operations of the liaison office will serve as a major indicator of how Moon wants to manage the balance between inter-Korean relations and denuclearization.

Yonho Kim is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from Clay Gilliland’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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