By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, June 27 (Yonhap) -- Restarting an inter-Korean industrial complex in North Korea and a mountain tour program to the communist nation could be considered even before full-scale sanctions relief in order to facilitate the denuclearization process, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said.
Kim made the remark in an interview with Yonhap News Agency and six other global news agencies in Seoul on Wednesday in response to a question whether the factory park in the North's border city of Kaesong and a tour program to the North's Mount Kumgang could resume even before Pyongyang's "complete" denuclearization.
"The Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tours have a very symbolic meaning in inter-Korean relations. The leaders of the South and the North agreed to resume the two projects as soon as the right conditions are met, and our government is currently making efforts to create the conditions," Kim said.
The most important of those conditions is progress in denuclearization negotiations, he said.
The two projects can be restarted as part of sanctions relief in exchange for the denuclearization of the North, but their resumption could also be considered "in the early stage of sanctions relief as an exceptional measure" to facilitate the process, the minister said.
In a written interview with Yonhap and six other global news agencies, President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday that he proposed to U.S. President Donald Trump that "Inter-Korean economic cooperation could be fully utilized as corresponding measures to induce the North to take denuclearization steps."
Launched in 2004 in the North's border town of Kaesong, the industrial park was born on the back of a peace mood created after the first-ever inter-Korean summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000.
It was hailed as a symbol of inter-Korean economic cooperation and a successful cross-border project that combined South Korean capital and technology with cheap labor from North Korea.
Its operation, however, came to an abrupt halt in February 2016, when the Seoul government decided to shut it down to punish the North for its nuclear and missile provocations.
Tours to Mount Kumgang on the North's scenic east coast were launched in 1998 amid thawing inter-Korean relations, but they were also suspended in 2008 after a female tourist was shot to death by a North Korean guard.
Seoul wants the resumption of the two suspended projects in the hope that it could advance inter-Korean relations. President Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed in their summit last September to resume their operations when conditions are met.
Washington, however, is opposed to any such full-blown inter-Korean economic cooperation for fear that it could undermine the global sanctions regime against Pyongyang when little progress has been made in their nuclear talks.
The minister emphasized that South Korea and the U.S. have been exchanging views on inter-Korean economic cooperation but said that such projects as the Kaesong park go beyond just economic exchanges across the border.
"The Kaesong factory park, for example, can be seen as a way of foreign direct investment by the international community, but it can also be seen as a process of narrowing the gap in communication between long-divided and quite different people through their daily lives," he said.
Kim also said that the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear complex in North Korea would carry a significant meaning in that it means the destruction of not just its plutonium-producing facilities but also some of the uranium enrichment facilities.
North Korea proposed destroying the Yongbyon complex as a key denuclearization step in exchange for major sanctions relief during its February second summit with the U.S. The summit ended without a deal as Washington demanded more than that.
President Moon earlier said that if the Yongbyon complex is completely destroyed and verified, it can be said that the denuclearization of North Korea has entered an "irreversible stage."
"What is a very important task at hand in the process of preparations for a third North Korea-U.S. summit is how to compose the Yongbyon plus alpha," the minister said.
He underlined the importance of mutual trust in making a third summit take place between the North and the U.S., saying the process of trust-building will eventually determine the speed of denuclearization.
He pointed out North Korea's criticism of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday is "a sign of distrust" between Pyongyang and Washington, saying that the two sides need to exchange a "sign of trust" on their working level contacts in order to make progress in major issues.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the North's foreign ministry issued a statement, criticizing U.S. officials, including Pompeo, for their "antagonism" toward Pyongyang, claiming they are preventing improvement in bilateral relations between the two sides and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
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