|In this file photo, local tourists walk a trail at Mount Geumgang in North Korea. South Korea has offered to send a delegation to check on facilities at the long-stalled joint tourist resort in the North. AP-Yonhap|
By Lee Min-hyung, Kim Yoo-chul
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul plans to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Washington's special representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun in the United States next week for talks on advancing inter-Korean relations.
"Preparatory works are still underway to make the unification minister's brief meetings with senior White House and State Department officials happen during his visit to the United States," a Cheong Wa Dae official said Friday. "Meetings with Pompeo and Biegun have been set."
A unification ministry official said Kim would travel to the United States on Nov. 17 to attend the annual Korea Global Forum for Peace, hosted by the ministry. He will deliver a keynote speech.
This is the minister's first visit to the United States since taking up his position in April. The visit is unlikely to draw substantial results but it will be an opportunity to understand the latest updates on Washington's assessments regarding inter-Korean affairs.
Kim is expected to use his meetings to stress the importance of the early resumption of the Mount Geumgang tourism project. Mount Geumgang, in the North's eastern region just beyond the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone separating the Koreas, is one of two major inter-Korean economic initiatives, along with the Gaeseong Industrial Complex.
The Mount Geumgang project was discussed when National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong presided over the weekly meeting with National Security Council members at Cheong Wa Dae. Participants exchanged the latest updates on the tourism project and how to protect the buildings of South Korean companies there.
The ministry recently notified North Korea that it wanted to send Seoul officials to check on facilities and structures at the resort. But the North is yet to respond. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered the demolition of hotels and other structures at the resort that were funded by the South, saying they appear "shabby" and "unpleasant-looking."
South Korea proposed direct communication on the issue, but the North rejected the offer and insisted on document exchanges.
Any removal of South Korea-invested facilities would be a blow to President Moon Jae-in's continued efforts to promote peace between the Koreas, including efforts to resume stalled business projects.
Presidential aides said an early resumption of the tourism project would encourage North Korea to accelerate its efforts to denuclearize. But United Nations Security Council sanctions on the North mean South Korea needs U.S. concessions if it wants to push forward with inter-Korean economic initiatives.
"As you would see lots of international tourists traveling to Mount Geumgang, reopening of the resort is very possible and isn't a violation of the United Nations economic sanctions," said Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to President Moon on unification and diplomacy affairs. "The key issue is how to address the transfer of money."
The U.N. sanctions against the North do not directly ban tourism but prohibit bulk cash transfers that can result from business activities.
Souring inter-Korean ties
Inter-Korean ties have become strained this year, with North Korea shunning official dialogue with South Korea amid the lack of clear progress in denuclearization talks between the North and the United States.
Last year, the North expressed willingness for talks with the South and even the United States to discuss the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in last year alone. But the collapse of February's Hanoi summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump put the brakes on any further progress in inter-Korean relations.
Following the second leadership meeting between Trump and Kim, the North has shown a return to its previous bellicose position by firing a series of missiles and releasing messages denouncing the Moon administration.
The South Korean government has played down the repeated provocations from the North, only repeating its desire to restart inter-Korean dialogue.
The outlook for relations between the United States and North Korea is getting murky following the breakdown of working-level negotiations in Sweden last month.
Ranking North Korean officials also have recently stepped up criticism of the South and the U.S., saying the allies should stop their joint military exercises, which the North views as "provocation."
Choe Ryong-hae, president of the North's Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, warned recently that the U.S. should halt "antagonistic policies" against the North, according to its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Choe is the de facto No. 2 political figure in the North.
The peninsula at a critical crossroads over whether to return to the earlier tension-laden status, Choe said.
"The North can hold negotiations on denuclearization with the U.S. only when the latter takes practical measures to clear away any anti-North Korea policies that get in the way of the security of the North," the KCNA quoted Choe as saying.