Unification Minister Lee In-young speaks during a press conference in Seoul. (Yonhap)
The South Korean government on Thursday proposed talks with North Korea on the establishment of a videoconference system, as part of efforts to rekindle stalemated inter-Korean talks, according to Unification Minister Lee In-young on Friday.
“Yesterday, we proposed to the North via the joint liaison channel that we consult on setting up a videoconference system,” Lee told reporters during a press conference at the ministry’s office in central Seoul. “The North has received our proposal. We hope Pyongyang will respond positively so that the video system can be installed at the earliest time.”
The offer was made via the inter-Korean hotline that was restored Tuesday, 13 months after Pyongyang unilaterally severed it in June last year in anger over what it called Seoul’s failure to stop activists from floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the North attached to balloons.
The reopened channel has sparked conjecture about the revival of dialogue between the two Koreas, as well as the potential for a summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Lee stressed that the ministry would work to complete the system for virtual conferences or “safe in-person talks” as soon as possible so that the two Koreas could hold talks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He added that the ministry had already come up with antivirus measures so that dialogue could happen safely.
“Now that the communication channel has been restored between the two Koreas, we will consult with the North on our ideas on establishing communication channels and keep preparing so that we can hold talks at any time,” he said.
In April, the ministry injected 400 million won ($348,432) to set up a virtual conference facility for inter-Korean talks in Seoul. Connecting the system with the North would not be difficult as long as Pyongyang agreed, as the necessary cables between the two Koreas have already been installed.
A senior ministry official said the ministry was currently drawing up an agenda consisting of about 30 items to discuss with the North when the inter-Korean talks resume. They include aid to the North, such as COVID-19 vaccines, and reunions of families separated by the Korean War.
Lee also said the ministry would start allowing local aid groups to resume assistance to North Korea, after a 10-month hiatus when the ministry temporary stopped granting approval. In September last year, a local fisheries official was killed by North Korea’s military near the inter-Korean sea border.
“The decision was made considering consistent requests from civilian organizations for humanitarian assistance, and the North’s situation, especially the urgency of assistance in public health and nutrition,” he said. “We will continue to approve the humanitarian assistance projects if they meet the requirements.”
The ministry said it had given the green light to two projects in the afternoon, without giving details.
The restored communication lines signaled a possible thaw in inter-Korean relations, which had soured after the collapse of the Hanoi summit in 2019. It also raised the prospects that Pyongyang might be ready for engagement after the regime had rebuffed both Washington and Seoul’s diplomatic overtures for months.
But one major challenge appears to be the upcoming US-South Korea military exercises scheduled for next month. The annual drills, which Pyongyang has long denounced as a rehearsal for an invasion of the North, typically provoked heightened rhetoric and military threats from Pyongyang.
A senior ministry official on Friday suggested postponing the military exercises with the US, considering the COVID-19 situation as well as the improved diplomatic mood with Pyongyang.
“I believe this is the right time to engage with the North through coordination between South Korea and the US,” the official said. “Washington could leap at this opportunity to bring a meaningful outcome in its nuclear talks with Pyongyang for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of permanent peace.”
By Ahn Sung-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org