WASHINGTON — A top South Korean official said Thursday that he believes it is still possible for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to visit Seoul before the end of the year.
Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon reminded a forum in Washington that the visit was an agreement reached between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at their last summit in September.
“Not only is it possible within the year, it’s necessary,” said Cho, who was in the United States on a five-day visit to meet senior American officials and Korea experts.
Kim’s visit to Seoul would be the first by a North Korean leader. And it would come as Moon has been pushing to improve ties to facilitate the denuclearization of the regime and the establishment of lasting peace on the peninsula.
But a perceived lack of progress in denuclearization talks between North Korea and the US has fed skepticism that Kim’s visit to Seoul will materialize.
“Past experience tells me that a visit before the year’s end would be impossible,” Cho said, noting that most summits take at least two months to prepare. “But the three previous (inter-Korean) summits have completely changed the situation. The leaders agree that they should keep preparations practical.”
The second summit in May took less than a day to prepare, while the third summit in September came after a “very short period” of planning, he added.
Addressing criticism that progress in inter-Korean ties has moved faster than progress in the North’s denuclearization, the minister likened the situation to the “natural flow of a river that was once blocked for long time.”
“We are investing our efforts to ensure that ongoing inter-Korean projects will contribute to the process of North Korea’s denuclearization,” he said. “We are coordinating closely with the US and the international community, and within the framework of multilateral sanctions.”
His remarks came amid speculation over possible differences in the two allies’ approach to dealing with North Korea.
South Korea has been eager to expand cross-border exchanges, which have been blocked by sanctions on Pyongyang. The US has said that sanctions will remain in place until the North completely gives up its nuclear weapons program.
Joint projects between South and North Korea, such as cross-border railway and road connections, which their leaders earlier agreed to, have all but halted.
Cho reiterated Seoul’s argument that an improvement in inter-Korean relations and denuclearization of the North should go hand in hand.
“We will push for a positive cycle of developing inter-Korean relations and the denuclearization of North Korea without changing our fundamental position,” he said. “Under this process, communication and coordination between the Republic of Korea and the US will be the baseline principles.”
Cho expressed hope that the recently canceled high-level talks between the US and North Korea will be rescheduled soon so as to enable progress in denuclearization talks. He also urged both sides to have more “patience” and “dialogue” to deepen their mutual understanding.
“It is too early to expect the US and the DPRK (North Korea) to establish trust after 70 years of hostility,” the minister said.
“There is a huge gap in their perspectives, and they lack mutual understanding.”
Cho also cautioned against being overoptimistic about the denuclearization process.
“Negotiations for the denuclearization of North Korea are still a work in progress. There is a long way to go, and we have many tasks to solve,” he said. “It is the common duty of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the US to find a solution and develop it to a level that will be irreversible.”
From North Korea’s perspective, a key issue at stake is the security of the regime, Cho said.
Unlike his late father and former leader Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un does not want to settle for low-level economic self-reliance, the minister said. Instead, he wants to build a globally competitive economy, which is possible only by opening up and which could in turn lead to regime instability, according to Cho.
“It’s virtually the first time this issue (of regime stability) has been put on the negotiating table,” he said, referring to denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea.
“Chairman Kim’s intention to give up nuclear weapons in return for (corresponding) benefits is stronger than ever before.” (Yonhap)