Insight: Growing split in Seoul over North Korea threatens Korea detente, nuclear talks

By Hyonhee Shin
1 / 2

FILE PHOTO: South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon speaks during a farewell ceremony for a joint onsite survey for the connection and modernization of the Inter-Korean railway at Dorasan station in Paju

FILE PHOTO: South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon speaks during a farewell ceremony for a joint onsite survey for the connection and modernization of the Inter-Korean railway at Dorasan station in Paju, South Korea, November 30, 2018. Jeon Heon-Kyun/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - When Seoul was preparing to open a liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong this summer after a decade of virtually no contact with its longtime enemy, South Korean officials had heated debates over whether they should seek approval from Washington.

Some top aides to President Moon Jae-in stressed it was an issue for the two Koreas alone and there was no need to involve their U.S. ally, two people with knowledge of the situation told Reuters.

But to the surprise of several officials at the meeting, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon argued Washington must be consulted because Seoul's plans might run afoul of sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme.

Two dozen countries including the Britain, Germany and Sweden already have embassies in Pyongyang, and other officials saw the proposed liaison office as a far lower-level of contact with the North.

And they certainly did not expect Cho to be a leading advocate of strict enforcement of sanctions. Cho was Moon's personal choice to head the ministry, whose prime mission is to foster reconciliation, cooperation and eventual reunification with the North.

Cho, whose 30 year public service history has been inextricably linked to reunification, was even sacked from the ministry in 2008 over his "dovish" stance towards Pyongyang.

At the suggestion of Cho and senior diplomats, Seoul ultimately sought U.S. consent before opening the office in September, one of the sources said.

All the sources spoke to condition of anonymity due to sensitivity of the matter.

Cho declined to comment for this article, but a senior official at the Unification Ministry said it was aware of criticisms of Cho.

"Inter-Korean ties are unique in their nature, but it's been difficult, and there's North Korea's duplicity. It's a dilemma we face, or our fate," the official said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.


CHIEF NEGOTIATOR, OR ROADBLOCK?

The previously unreported debate among Moon's top officials illustrates a growing divide within South Korea over how to progress relations with the North while keeping Washington on side.

Some corners of the administration argue Seoul can't afford to be seen veering from the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure campaign until Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons programme, while others feel closer inter-Korean ties can help expedite the stalled diplomatic process, several officials close to the situation say.

"If the internal rift leads to moving too quickly with the North without sufficient U.S. consultations, it could pose a setback to not only the nuclear talks but also the alliance and inter-Korean relations," said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

After the inter-Korean thaw gave way to reconciliation efforts between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this year, Trump asked Moon to be "chief negotiator" between the two.

That task has become increasingly difficult as Washington and Pyongyang blame each other for the faltering nuclear talks.

U.S. officials insist punishing sanctions must remain until North Korea completely denuclearises. North Korea says it has already made concessions by dismantling key facilities and Washington must reciprocate by easing sanctions and declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

"Unlike other advisers, Minister Cho has balanced his staunch desire for peace with an understanding of the importance of retaining a strong South Korea-U.S. alignment," said Patrick Cronin of the Centre for a New American Security, an Asia expert in close touch with both U.S. and South Korean officials.

"Some alliance discord is inevitable and not worrisome. What would be worrisome would be a clear rupture in South Korea-U.S. approaches for managing North Korea."

The presidential Blue House declined to comment, but Moon told reporters on Monday the view that there was discord between South Korea and the United States was "groundless" because there is no difference in the two countries' positions on the North's denuclearisation.


SLOW PROGRESS, MOUNTING FRUSTRATION

A third source familiar with the presidential office's thinking said there was mounting frustration with Cho within the Blue House and even inside the Unification Ministry amid concerns he worried too much about U.S. views.

"What the president would want from him as the unification minister is to come up with bold ideas to make his pet initiatives happen," the source said.

During three summits this year, Moon and Kim agreed to re-link railways and roads, and when conditions are met, restart the joint factory park in Kaesong and tours to the North's Mount Kumgang resort that have been suspended for years.

None of those plans have made much headway, either because sanctions ban them outright, or as in the case of Kaesong, Seoul took time to convince sceptical U.S. officials that cross-border projects wouldn't undermine sanctions.

North Korea itself has been an unpredictable partner. Discussions through the Kaesong office have been few and far between, with Pyongyang's negotiators often failing to show up for scheduled weekly meetings without notice, Unification Ministry officials say.

Even so, the Kaesong move has caused tensions with Washington.

U.S. officials told Seoul that South Korea's explanations on the Kaesong office were not "satisfactory," the South's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told a parliamentary hearing in August.

Washington was also caught off guard when a group of businessmen who used to operate factories in the now-closed Kaesong industrial park were invited for the opening ceremony of the office, a diplomatic source in Seoul said.

The allies launched a working group last month led by their nuclear envoys to coordinate North Korean policy. It was borne out of U.S. desire to "keep inter-Korean relations in check," the source said.

Asked about the Kaesong office, a U.S. State Department official said: "We expect all member states to fully implement U.N. sanctions, including sectoral goods banned under UN Security Council resolution, and expect all nations to take their responsibilities seriously to help end (North Korea's) illegal nuclear and missile programmes."

Another State official said the United States endorsed April's inter-Korean summit agreement during its own summit with North Korea "because progress on inter-Korean relations must happen in lockstep with progress on denuclearisation."

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Cho in Washington, bluntly warning him that inter-Korean cooperation and progress on nuclear negotiations should "remain aligned."


ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Even as he faced pressure from Washington to hold a tough line, Cho was being criticised for dragging his feet on reconciliation.

In May, the North called off planned talks with the South led by Cho in protest against U.S.-South Korean air combat exercises. When the meeting eventually took place, Cho's counterpart, Ri Son Gwon, openly blamed Cho for having caused a "grave situation" that resulted in the cancellation of the talks.

At the Kaesong office opening, factory owners pressed Cho to reopen the complex and said they were dismayed at the Unification Ministry for repeatedly rejecting requests to visit the border city to check on equipment and facilities idled since the 2016 shutdown.

"We've expressed, directly and indirectly, our complaint that the minister may be too lukewarm about our requests, even though allowing the trip has nothing to do with sanctions," said Shin Han-yong, who chairs a group of businessmen with plants in Kaesong.

Cho recently told the parliament the delays are due to scheduling issues with the North, adding the ministry "needs more time to explain the overall circumstances" to the international community.

Shin, the expert at Asan, warned any move to undermine sanctions may expose South Korean companies to risks of punishment.

After Moon and Kim's summit in Pyongyang in September, a senior U.S. Treasury official called compliance officers at seven South Korean banks to warn them that resuming financial cooperation with North Korea "does not align with U.S. policies" and the banks must comply with U.N. and U.S. financial sanctions, according to a South Korean regulatory document.

"Realistically we have no option but to consider U.S. positions, as the top priority is the North's denuclearisation and the United States has the biggest leverage on that," said Kim Hyung-suk, who served as vice unification minister until last year.

"Without progress on the nuclear issues, there would be constraints at some point in sustaining inter-Korean ties. And Minister Cho knows that."


For full multimedia coverage on North Korea: https://www.reuters.com/north-korea/


(Editing by Soyoung Kim and Lincoln Feast.)

  • Trump says Taliban must curb violence for meaningful Afghanistan talks
    News
    Reuters

    Trump says Taliban must curb violence for meaningful Afghanistan talks

    U.S. President Donald Trump told Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani that there cannot be meaningful negotiations until the Taliban significantly reduces its violence, the White House said in a statement on Wednesday. "Trump reiterated the need for a significant and lasting reduction in violence

  • Wirecard to beef up management; Braun to stay: new chairman
    Finance
    Reuters

    Wirecard to beef up management; Braun to stay: new chairman

    The new chairman of Wirecard said the German payments company needed to strengthen its top management as it fights allegations of fraud and false accounting, while giving Chief Executive Markus Braun a vote of confidence. Braun's contract expiring at the end of this year will definitely be extended

  • 'No doubt' e-cigarettes harmful: WHO
    News
    AFP News

    'No doubt' e-cigarettes harmful: WHO

    Electronic cigarettes are harmful both to users and bystanders exposed to the fumes, the World Health Organization says in a report warning they can damage growing foetuses and impact teenagers' brains. The UN health agency also said second-hand exposure to e-cigarette fumes was harmful, pointing

  • Iraq happy with U.S. troops, Trump says at talks over mission's future
    News
    Reuters

    Iraq happy with U.S. troops, Trump says at talks over mission's future

    Iraq likes what U.S. troops are doing there, President Donald Trump said on Wednesday at talks with the Iraqi president about the future of the mission, which has been in doubt since a U.S. drone strike killed an Iranian commander in Baghdad. Iraqi President Barham Salih's office said he and Trump

  • Wuhan urges people to stay away in bid to contain China virus
    News

    Wuhan urges people to stay away in bid to contain China virus

    The Chinese city at the centre of the fight against a SARS-like virus outbreak has told people to stay away, cancelling major Lunar New Year events as medical staff handled patients in full-body protective suits and officials used fever scanners to screen travellers. The coronavirus has spread across

  • U.S. and Britain trade threats in tech tax row
    Finance
    Reuters

    U.S. and Britain trade threats in tech tax row

    U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his British counterpart Sajid Javid clashed over taxation on Wednesday in a brewing battle over how Europe taxes the world's biggest technology firms. Javid said Britain would press ahead with a digital service tax in April even as Mnuchin, sitting feet

  • UK House of Commons rejects changes to Brexit legislation
    News
    Reuters

    UK House of Commons rejects changes to Brexit legislation

    The lower house of Britain's parliament on Wednesday overturned changes made by the upper house to the legislation needed to ratify the country's divorce agreement with the European Union. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has signalled he will not accept any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill

  • China virus death toll jumps to 17, officials say avoid epicentre city
    News
    AFP News

    China virus death toll jumps to 17, officials say avoid epicentre city

    The death toll from a new SARS-like virus that has infected hundreds in China rose to 17 on Wednesday, as authorities urged people to steer clear of the city at the centre of the outbreak. The coronavirus has caused alarm because of its similarity to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed

  • Protesters climb trees to protect UK woodland from planned rail link
    News
    Reuters

    Protesters climb trees to protect UK woodland from planned rail link

    Protesters reinforced makeshift tree-houses in a woodland canopy outside London on Wednesday in anticipation of a fresh attempt by contractors to fell thousands of trees to make way for a planned high-speed rail link. The fight to preserve woods and wetlands in the Colne Valley has emerged as a flashpoint

  • Pompeo says he will testify in Trump impeachment trial if required
    News
    Reuters

    Pompeo says he will testify in Trump impeachment trial if required

    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday he would be ready to testify in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial if legally obliged to, as political squabbles over the process intensified in Washington. "If I am legally required to testify, as I've said before, I'll

  • Brazil's Bolsonaro says no more media interviews
    News
    AFP News

    Brazil's Bolsonaro says no more media interviews

    A frequent and fiery critic of Brazil's media, President Jair Bolsonaro declared Wednesday he would no longer speak to journalists. Bolsonaro made the remarks outside his official residence in Brasilia where most mornings for the past year he has fielded questions from reporters and greeted fans

  • Google launches trio of new experimental apps to help people curb their phone usage
    News
    AFP Relax

    Google launches trio of new experimental apps to help people curb their phone usage

    To help smartphone owners understand just how much time they spend on their devices each day and therefore control or even reduce this amount, Google has announced three new experimental digital well-being applications designed to shock people into putting down their handset. Back in October, Google

  • European stocks hit by Trump tariff threat
    News
    AFP News

    European stocks hit by Trump tariff threat

    European stocks were hit Wednesday after US President Donald Trump threatened to slap auto tariffs on EU-built cars if a long-delayed trade deal failed to come through. London, Frankfurt and Paris stocks were down in afternoon trading after Trump said he would order a 25% levy on European cars if the

  • Tesla races past $100 billion in market valuation
    Finance
    Reuters

    Tesla races past $100 billion in market valuation

    Shares of the company, which is already valued more than Ford Motor Co and General Motors Co combined, were up 4.8% at $573.20 in early trading. The milestone comes less than a month after Tesla's stock crossed $420, the price at which Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk had tweeted he would take

  • Storm Gloria leaves eight dead, ruins rice paddies in Spain
    News
    Reuters

    Storm Gloria leaves eight dead, ruins rice paddies in Spain

    At least eight people have been killed as Storm Gloria has rampaged across eastern Spain, unleashing winds of up to 144 kmh (90 mph) and waves up to 13.5 metres (44 feet) high, officials said on Wednesday. Three people remained missing four days after Gloria began pummelling the region with torrential

  • Trump revives trade battle with Europe with threat to cars
    News
    AFP News

    Trump revives trade battle with Europe with threat to cars

    US President Donald Trump, fresh from calling a trade truce with China, threatened on Wednesday to impose crippling tariffs on European autos unless the EU budges on a long-delayed deal. Trump, attending the Davos conclave as his dramatic Senate impeachment trial unfolds back home, revived an offensive

  • Lebanon PM says new cabinet faces 'catastrophe'
    News
    AFP News

    Lebanon PM says new cabinet faces 'catastrophe'

    Lebanon faces a "catastrophe", Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Wednesday after his newly unveiled cabinet held its first meeting to tackle the twin challenges of a tenacious protest movement and a nosediving economy. Diab, who replaced Saad Hariri as prime minister, vowed to meet the demands

  • Tesla value hits $100 bn, triggering payout plan for Musk
    News
    AFP News

    Tesla value hits $100 bn, triggering payout plan for Musk

    Tesla's market value hit $100 billion for the first time Wednesday, triggering a payout plan that could be worth billions for Elon Musk, founder and chief of the electric carmaker. Shares in Tesla rose some 4.8 percent in opening trade to extend the gains in the value of the fast-growing maker of

  • UK steps up checks on flights from China virus centre
    News
    AFP Relax

    UK steps up checks on flights from China virus centre

    Britain on Wednesday enhanced monitoring of flights from the central China city at the heart of a new SARS-like virus that has killed nine people and spread to the United States. Public Health England also raised the risk level of an infection from "very low" to "low" because of

  • Putin to meet mother of US-Israeli woman jailed in Russia
    News
    AFP News

    Putin to meet mother of US-Israeli woman jailed in Russia

    Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to meet with the mother of a US-Israeli woman jailed in Moscow on drug charges, a Kremlin aide said Wednesday, as the case has led to protests in Israel. The Russian leader will meet Yaffa Issachar, the mother of Naama Issachar, while visiting Israel on Thursday

  • Thousands of Greek islanders protest against migrant camps
    News
    AFP News

    Thousands of Greek islanders protest against migrant camps

    The islanders of Lesbos, Samos and Chios staged a general strike, shutting down shops and public services and rallying in central squares, many waving Greek flags. Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, who was appointed to the post last week, said local anger was "justified". "The burden

  • UN experts demand probe into alleged Saudi hacking of Bezos phone
    News
    AFP News

    UN experts demand probe into alleged Saudi hacking of Bezos phone

    Independent UN rights experts said Wednesday they had received information that Amazon owner Jeff Bezos's phone was hacked through a WhatsApp account belonging to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. "The alleged hacking of Mr Bezos's phone, and those of others, demands immediate investigation

  • Guinea-Bissau electoral commission confirms Embalo as president
    News
    Reuters

    Guinea-Bissau electoral commission confirms Embalo as president

    Guinea-Bissau's national electoral commission confirmed former Prime Minister Umaro Cissoko Embalo as winner of the presidential ballot on Wednesday, after the Supreme Court threw the result into doubt last week. On Friday the court had called for a clarification of the tally hours after the electoral

  • Top banker arrested in Malawi election bribery case
    News
    AFP News

    Top banker arrested in Malawi election bribery case

    Malawi's anti-graft body on Wednesday said it had arrested a prominent businessman over allegations he tried to bribe judges hearing a legal challenge to the re-election of President Peter Mutharika. The arrest comes days before the court is expected to deliver its ruling on the election petition

  • French unions try to keep pension protest alive as deadline looms
    News
    AFP News

    French unions try to keep pension protest alive as deadline looms

    Hardline French unions on Wednesday kept up a series of wildcat strikes aimed at ratcheting up pressure on the government before it presents the final version of a pension reform that has prompted France's biggest labour protest in decades. "It's going to be Friday or never," Philippe