South Korea Pushes Ahead with Diplomatic Office in North KoreaSEOUL, South Korea — South Korea said on Wednesday that it would press ahead with its plan to open a diplomatic “liaison office” in North Korea this year, dismissing concerns that it was too quickly making overtures to the North Koreans, who have yet to begin dismantling their nuclear weapons program.
When South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, held his first summit meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on April 27, they agreed to establish a joint liaison office — a potential first step toward building formal diplomatic missions — in the North Korean border town of Kaesong.
In a speech last Wednesday, Mr. Moon said opening the joint liaison office was imminent. “In a few days,” he said, “an era in which the two Koreas communicate with each other around the clock will commence.”
But the conservative political opposition and the conservative news media in the South have since raised fears that Mr. Moon’s government was creating a rift with Washington by advancing inter-Korean relations when North Korea had taken no clear steps toward denuclearization. They also questioned whether fuel oil and electricity, which the South plans to supply the office, would violate United Nations sanctions.
South Korea says the liaison office would not violate sanctions because it will provide no economic benefits for the North Korean government and would only help facilitate communications for denuclearization efforts. Washington has so far only said that it wanted inter-Korean relations to improve in tandem with efforts to denuclearize the North.
On Wednesday, Mr. Moon’s office characterized those concerns as mere “quibbling,” given that 24 nations, including Britain and Germany, operate embassies in Pyongyang, the North’s capital.
“I don’t think it will be a big obstacle blocking the mighty stream” of diplomatic efforts engaging North Korea, said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for Mr. Moon.
South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, said on Tuesday that Seoul was still waiting for a “satisfactory” endorsement of the plan from Washington. Local news media interpreted her comment as an indication that there were differences between the allies over opening the liaison office.
Mr. Moon has emphasized that he would coordinate closely with Washington on any effort to improve relations with the North and rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons. Mr. Moon met with Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader, twice this year to help lay the groundwork for Mr. Kim’s historic summit with President Trump in Singapore in June.
At the June meeting, Mr. Kim committed to working toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But talks between Washington and Pyongyang have since stalled over how to denuclearize North Korea.
In his speech last Wednesday, Mr. Moon vowed to boost South Korea’s diplomatic engagement with the North.
Mr. Moon is scheduled to visit Pyongyang next month for his third summit with Mr. Kim. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also planned to make a fourth visit to Pyongyang “soon,” according to John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser.
Since the summit meeting in April, Mr. Moon’s government has kicked off a series of inter-Korean projects aimed at easing tensions and building trust.
This week, the two Koreas are holding reunions for families separated during the Korean War. Mr. Moon hopes to hold groundbreaking ceremonies this year for connecting railways across the border separating the two countries.
He envisions integrating the two Korean economies, should the North denuclearize. Mr. Moon said that the joint liaison office in Kaesong will help expedite these plans and others.
This week, Defense Minister Song Young-moo of South Korea said that both countries’ militaries have discussed removing 10 of their guard posts within the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula.
Both armies operate dozens of heavily armed guard posts within the DMZ, although they are banned from doing so under the 1953 armistice that halted the war.
Gen. Vincent Brooks, the top American military commander in South Korea, said on Wednesday that he supported any initiative to reduce military tensions along the border.
But General Brooks also warned that withdrawing the posts involved some risk — though, “not an excessive amount” — in terms of American and South Korea’s’ abilities to defend against the North.