(ATTN: ADDS updates in last 5 paras, photos)
By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL/PANMUNJOM, Sept. 16 (Joint Press Corps-Yonhap) -- Unification Minister Lee In-young called Wednesday for North Korea to implement agreements the leaders of the two Koreas reached during their 2018 summit talks and move forward the stalled inter-Korean relations.
Lee made the appeal during his first trip to the truce village of Panmunjom since his inauguration in July, also expressing hope for reopening of severed communication lines and resumption of "open-minded" dialogue between the two Koreas as soon as possible.
Lee's trip came days ahead of the second anniversary of a summit agreement signed between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang on Sept. 19, 2018, to reduce tensions and bolster cooperation.
"The promise should be fulfilled and agreements can be completed through implementation," Lee said during a brief meeting with reporters at Panmunjom. "In order to complete the determination of the leaders of the two sides and restart the time for the South and the North, joint efforts between the two Koreas should continue to move forward."
"For the implementation of South-North joint declarations, the government will start with a small approach first in the humanitarian and other exchange and cooperation areas that the two Koreas could start right away," he added. "By starting like that, we intend to turn it into the time for trust and faith."
President Moon and North Korean leader Kim held three summit talks in 2018 and agreed to reduce tensions and increase cooperation. The two Koreas also opened a joint liaison office in the North's border town of Kaesong in the same year to facilitate communications on cooperative projects.
Inter-Korean relations, however, have failed to move forward since a no-deal summit between the North and the United States in February last year. Many of the summit agreements between the two Koreas have been suspended ever since.
The ties chilled further recently after North Korea cut off inter-Korean communication lines and blew up the liaison office in anger over the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets from the South. The North also threatened to take military action against the South, but leader Kim later put the plans on hold.
"I hope that consultation channels, including the joint liaison office, will be normalized so that we can resume our open-minded dialogue at an early date," the minister said.
Lee expressed regrets over the explosion of the liaison office but noted that he believes the North remains committed to implementing summit agreements. He said Kim's decision to suspend any military action against the South appears aimed at preventing further escalation.
He stressed that inter-Korean cooperation in the humanitarian area, including joint efforts related to public health, the coronavirus and climate change, should be pursued through communication with Washington, saying such moves could help build trust among the three countries.
In particular, he voiced hope for the two Koreas to hold a "small-scale" reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War at the truce village of Panmunjom as soon as concerns over the coronavirus pandemic ease.
He admitted that it would not be easy to hold such face-to-face reunions ahead of the Chuseok holiday later this month due to time restraints but noted that it could be possible to have video reunions or exchanges of video letters between the war-torn families.
"We are ready to take action immediately when the North responds," he said.
South Korea has sought to hold video reunions and secured relevant sanctions exemptions on equipment to be sent to the North last year, but no progress has been made amid strained inter-Korean relations.
The two Koreas last held face-to-face reunions of war-torn families in August 2018 at the Mount Kumgang resort on the North's east coast amid summit-created rapprochement, but no subsequent unions have been held ever since amid strained ties.
He also offered North Korea consolation for damage caused by recent back-to-back typhoons and flooding and called for cooperation between the two Koreas in the face of future natural disasters.
With regard to the possibility of providing aid to the North for its recovery efforts, Lee said aid can be provided through the international community but that such a decision should also be made after sufficiently taking North Korea's position into consideration.
North Korean leader Kim earlier rejected any offer of outside help, saying that accepting foreign aid could increase the risk of coronavirus infections.
The United Nations Command (UNC) welcomed Lee's visit, saying that it looks forward to continuing close cooperation with his ministry and supports inter-Korean cooperation, including the reunions of separated families.
"UNC has long been a supporter of this cause, facilitating the construction of Freedom House in the JSA and coordinating with the (North's) Korean People's Army to allow crossings to Mt. Kumgang resort on multiple occasions," the U.S.-led command said in a Facebook post.
The UNC also said it is looking at restarting the suspended tour program to Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which takes visitors to the southern side of the truce village.
"We will announce when the UNC Commander has decided to restart tours," it said.
Tours to Panmunjom were suspended in October last year, when the highly contagious African swine fever was reported near the border. The ministry postponed the resumption of the tour program earlier this year amid concerns over the new coronavirus.
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