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(3rd LD) S. Korea, U.S. hold working group talks on N. Korea

All News 17:06 February 10, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES story throughout)
By Kim Seung-yeon

SEOUL, Feb. 10 (Yonhap) -- South Korean officials briefed their U.S. counterparts Monday on Seoul's push to expand exchanges with North Korea, such as allowing individual trips to the communist nation, as they held a "working group" meeting to coordinate policy on Pyongyang, officials said.

U.S. officials, led by U.S. Deputy Special Representative for North Korea Alex Wong, expressed understanding of Seoul's position during the closed-door meeting with South Korean officials led by Rhee Dong-yeol, direct general at the foreign ministry's Korean Peninsula peace regime bureau, officials said.

Wong arrived in Seoul on Sunday for the talks.

In the talks, Rhee outlined Seoul's plan for individual tourism and reconnecting railways and roads, as well as turning the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that bisects the two Koreas into a peace zone, according to sources familiar with the matter.

In particular, Rhee pointed out that the main purpose of Seoul's push to allow its citizens to travel to the North on an individual basis lies in providing the families separated by the Korean War with chances to visit the North, rather than being for business.

"The South side explained that individual trips will proceed from a humanitarian perspective, not a business for profit," a source said, adding that Seoul officials asked for U.S. cooperation in moving these projects forward.

In his press conference for the new year, President Moon Jae-in vowed to push for the expansion of inter-Korean cooperation as a way to facilitate the stalled nuclear talks, such as allowing individual tourism to the communist state, which does not fall under U.N. sanctions against the North.

Alex Wong, U.S. deputy special representative for North Korea, is surrounded by reporters as he walks into the foreign ministry in Seoul for working group talks on Feb. 10, 2020. (Yonhap)

Seoul has been looking to bolster inter-Korean exchanges amid the prolonged deadlock in the nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang since the collapse of the second summit in February last year between U.S. President Donald Trump and the North's leader Kim Jong-un.

The project on reconnecting cross-border railways and roads was part of the agreement reached between the two Koreas in 2018, but it has been stalled ever since.

Experts also say that daunting challenges lie ahead before realizing individual trips to the North, such as winning U.S. endorsement for the project, and getting Pyongyang to agree to the project and ensure the safety of travelers.

The unification ministry in charge of inter-Korean relations said earlier in the day that the issue of individual tourism does not necessarily need consultations with the United States because such tourism is not banned under U.N. sanctions, though the government plans to brief the U.S. on it.

"The issue of individual trips is not subject to consultations between South Korea and the U.S. as the government has consistently said," Yoh Sang-key, the ministry's spokesperson told a regular media briefing.

"However, as far as I know, we're going to explain our position," he said.

Wong is expected to continue talks with foreign ministry officials and meet with officials from the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae on Tuesday.

The working group was set up in late 2018 to coordinate North Korea-related issues.


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