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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 18)

All Headlines 09:08 January 18, 2020

Individual tours to North
Seoul, Washington should overcome differences in inter-Korean issues

The Moon Jae-in government is considering allowing South Koreans to travel to North Korea on an individual basis. The move is designed to promote inter-Korean cooperation and exchanges amid the stalled dialogue not only between Seoul and Pyongyang, but also between Washington and Pyongyang.

In a New Year's press conference Tuesday, President Moon floated the idea of individual tours to the North. The government is now studying ways of allowing South Koreans to travel to the North via a third country such as China if they obtain a visa from Pyongyang. Currently individual tours are available only for South Koreans with permanent overseas resident status.

The envisioned measure reflects Seoul's position that it cannot wait for Washington and Pyongyang to resume their talks which have been in limbo since the failure of the February 2019 summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un. Moon is apparently worried that his policy of active engagement with the North may falter further if the denuclearization talks slide into a prolonged impasse.

In this situation, allowing individual tours to the North appears to be a realistic step to move inter-Korean reconciliation and peace forward. If things goes well, enhanced cooperation and exchanges between the two Korea could hopefully lead to the resumption of the nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang. Officials said individual tours are not affected by U.N. sanctions on the North.

Now the question is whether the Kim regime will accept the South's would-be proposal which is different from group tours under the Mount Geumgang tourism project. The North had called for the resumption of the project which was suspended in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard. Last October it threatened to end the project permanently as the South failed to meet its demand due to the international sanctions.

Some North Korea experts say that Pyongyang may not accommodate individual tours by South Koreans, considering its hardened stance toward both Seoul and Washington. If the North accepts the proposal, there would be many thorny issues to be tackled.

Also at stake is the U.S.'s firm stance on "maximum pressure" and sanctions against the North. The Trump administration wants to ensure that the pace of inter-Korean detente should be in lockstep with the progress of the North's nuclear disarmament. Such a position could cause a dispute between Seoul and Washington.

U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris touched off a controversy Thursday by calling on the South to consult closely with America about its inter-Korean exchange plans, including individual tours to the North. He certainly meant that such consultations are necessary to avoid any "misunderstanding" about Seoul's plans for engagement with Pyongyang.

But his remarks infuriated some South Korean lawmakers and officials. Rep. Song Young-gil of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea denounced him for trying to serve as "governor general." Lee Sang-min, spokesman of the Ministry of Unification, said Seoul's inter-Korean policy was a matter of sovereignty. The presidential office also condemned Harris for making "very inappropriate remarks."

It is disappointing to see the conflict taking place between the allies over the issue. We hope both sides will narrow their differences and step up collaboration in dealing with the North.

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