North Korea Liaison Office Shows U.S.-South Korea Fissures

(Bloomberg) -- South Korea’s plan to set up a liaison office at an industrial park it sponsors in North Korea is underscoring differences between Seoul and Washington over the pace of rapprochement with Kim Jong Un’s regime.

The inter-Korean office slated to open this month at the Gaeseong complex might violate United Nations and U.S. sanctions, South Korea’s Chosun newspaper reported Monday, citing an unidentified American official. A State Department spokesperson later told Bloomberg News that improvements in ties between the two Koreas must occur “in lockstep” with progress on eliminating Kim’s nuclear arsenal, without saying if the office would violate sanctions.

The liaison office is among several initiatives supported by South Korean President Moon Jae-in -- including reunions this week between families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War -- as he attempts to build on his landmark April agreement with Kim. Nuclear talks have slowed as North Korea pushes for more tangible steps to improve ties by South Korea and the U.S. as a condition of weapons concessions.

Moon spokesman Kim Eui-keum on Monday rejected the suggestion that establishing the liaison office would violate sanctions. He said the facility was among the provisions affirmed by President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader at their own summit in June in Singapore.

‘No Gains’

“It’s wrong to view the issue of the inter-Korean liaison office as a violation of sanctions,” Kim Eui-keum told reporters in Seoul. “This is not to provide North Korea with any economic gains.”

The issue has emerged as the region prepares for a new diplomatic flurry aimed at resolving the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear weapons, with Chinese President Xi Jinping considering a trip to Pyongyang next month, the Straits Times of Singapore reported Saturday, without citing anyone. Meanwhile, Moon planned his own visit to the North Korean capital -- the first by a South Korean leader in 11 years.

Moon must strike a difficult balance with Kim, amid U.S. pressure to maintain sanctions against the regime. At same time, a commentary published Monday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency criticized what it said was a lack of consistency by South Korea and arguing that peace could only be achieved “without the help of outside forces.”

‘Slow Down’

“Moon needs to slow down his push for improving inter-Korean relations, because the relationship between South Korea and the U.S. will be on the line,” said Song Jae-ik, who teaches national defense studies at Hanyang University in Seoul. Moon’s efforts to relax South Korean pressure “can’t go hand in hand with a U.S. administration hesitant to lift their sanctions,” Song said.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Trump’s point man for North Korea, has pushed for Kim to accept a clear time frame for abandoning his nuclear weapons. North Korea has rejected the approach, with state-run media lambasting the U.S.’s “pressure diplomacy” and saying it’s relying on “outdated gangster-like logic.”

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said during an appearance Sunday on ABC News’s “This Week” that Pompeo would “soon” return to North Korea. Bolton said the Trump administration expected Kim Jong Un to meet with Pompeo, who didn’t get an audience with the North Korean leader during his previous visit last month.

“This is to fulfill the commitment that Kim Jong Un made in Singapore, that he had previously made to the South Koreans, and to move on with the process of denuclearization,” Bolton said.

In another possible sign of differing expectations, Bolton said that the White House expected North Korea to denuclearize within “one year.” The day before Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un, Moon told senior advisers that the process might take “one year or two years, or even longer.”

“We cannot depend entirely on the talks between the U.S. and North Korea to solve the issue of hostility and North Korea’s nuclear program,” Moon said at the time. “South-North talks have to be successfully carried out, as well.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.