By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, Nov. 21 (Yonhap) -- The U.S. expression of "strong support" for South Korea's efforts to reconnect cross-border railways with North Korea brightened the peace project's prospects, but any meaningful progress appears to hinge on how the stalled denuclearization negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang will go.
The railway project was a key topic at the inaugural session of a "working group" that Seoul and Washington launched to coordinate policies on North Korea. The meeting came amid speculation that the rail project isn't moving forward as scheduled because the United States raised concerns about the fast-paced inter-Korean cooperation.
"The U.S. expressed its strong support for the joint study of the inter-Korean railway project," Lee Do-hoon, Seoul's chief nuclear envoy, told reporters after holding the working group meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Stephen Biegun.
Lee said the Seoul government aims to hold a groundbreaking ceremony before the end of the year.
The Koreas had planned to begin a field survey on a cross-border railway running on the western part of the Korean Peninsula in late October so that they could hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the project either in late November or early December.
But the field survey has been delayed amid speculation about U.S. displeasure.
Hours earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that denuclearization and inter-Korean economic cooperation should go hand in hand, adding that the allies are in "complete agreement" on that matter.
"We have made clear to the Republic of Korea that we do want to make sure that peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea aren't lagging behind the increase in the amount of inter-relationship between the two Koreas," Pompeo said in a press conference. "We view them as tandem, as moving forward together. We view them as important parallel processes."
Pompeo also said that the working group is designed to ensure that "we can be sure that we don't talk past each other, that we don't take an action, or the South Koreans don't take an action that the other is unaware of or hasn't had a chance to comment on, or provide their thoughts."
The unusually blunt comment by the top American diplomat suggested that the U.S. is concerned about the Koreas moving forward on their peace process at a time when denuclearization negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang remain stalled.
The fact that a railway survey could involve moving sanctioned materials to the North might have deepened Washington's anxiety.
South Korea has been eager to expand exchanges and economic cooperation with the North, claiming that those efforts could speed up the denuclearization process. The U.S. has been adamant in keeping sanctions in place against the North until it completely gives up its nuclear weapons program.
Tuesday's working group meeting drew keen attention as it was regarded as a chance for Seoul to enlist support and an exemption on sanctions from Washington in its push for the nearly stalled inter-Korean economic cooperation projects.
The seemingly conflicting messages from Washington on the same day appear to reflect its jitters over the lack of progress in denuclearization talks with North Korea despite a historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June in which they agreed to complete the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The two were scheduled to have a high-level meeting early this month aimed at discussing denuclearization and preparations for a second summit, but the North canceled it at the last minute, which the U.S. attributed to scheduling problems.
They are reportedly discussing rearranging the high-level talks. Trump also earlier said that he will likely meet Kim early next year.
Meanwhile, inter-Korean economic cooperation and talks between the U.S. and North Korea are closely related to which direction the relations between South and North Korea will head at least in the months ahead, observers said.
Without a major breakthrough in inter-Korean relations, which greatly hinge on economic cooperation, they are worried that there is no reason for Kim to visit South Korea as he promised in his September summit in Pyongyang with President Moon Jae-in.
"There is no reason for Kim to hastily visit the South at a time when there is no marked achievement to show off to his people in terms of economic cooperation with Seoul and in denuclearization talks with Washington," said Woo Jung-yeop, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a private think tank.
"He would be very careful in making such a historic trip to the South, thinking whether it would be worth it against the current backdrop," he added.
South Korea says that it is possible for Kim to visit South Korea before the end of this year, adding that the government will continue to make necessary preparations.
N. Korea's reaction to Seoul's olive-branch offers litmus test for future inter-Korean ties
Seoul seeks to keep peace process alive through biz people's Kaesong trip: experts
N.K. projectile launch signals it wants more than food aid
Severe food shortages in N. Korea in spotlight after Trump's blessing for help
Moon's peace drive at a crossroads, no hype for his inauguration anniversary