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(LEAD) Unification minister says breakthrough in inter-Korean ties could come 'sooner than expected'

North Korea 16:44 November 23, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS more info in para 7-8, photos)
By Yi Wonju

SEOUL, Nov. 23 (Yonhap) -- Unification Minister Lee In-young on Monday called on South Korean conglomerates to prepare for possible inter-Korean cooperation despite the current stalled relations, stressing that a breakthrough in cross-border ties could "come sooner than expected."

Lee made the remark at a meeting with officials from South Korean conglomerates, including Samsung Electronics, SK Group, LG Group and Hyundai Motor Group, whose leaders accompanied President Moon Jae-in during his visit to Pyongyang for his third inter-Korean summit in September 2018.

"We cannot rule out the possibility of economic cooperation between the two Koreas that may come sooner than expected and is not necessarily something in the far future if we have the opportunity to see flexibility in North Korean sanctions, progress in nuclear talks and the development of coronavirus vaccines," Lee said.

Lee pointed out that Pyongyang is likely to concentrate more on achieving economic progress next year amid a triple whammy of its ongoing antivirus campaign, devastation caused by recent typhoons and the fallout from global sanctions.

"We need to create strategic room to encourage the North to come forward for inter-Korean cooperation," he said.

The minister added that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's approach toward North Korea may be more flexible than that of the current administration, pointing out that Biden has left room for the possibility of a summit meeting with Pyongyang on the condition that North Korea's nuclear capabilities will be reduced.

Lee said the ministry will seek close consultation with the incoming Biden administration to "restart the Korean Peninsula peace process," the ministry said in a press release after the meeting.

He also proposed holding regular meetings with business leaders to maintain communication in preparation for possible cross-border cooperation in the post-COVID19 era.

"The government plans to create an environment for economic cooperation, including overcoming risks, and to prepare for projects, such as allowing individual tours to North Korea, reconnecting railways and resuming the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and to discover and push ahead with very small but reciprocal projects between the two Koreas," Lee said.

The industrial complex was among key inter-Korean cooperation projects, along with the now-suspended tour program taking tourists from South Korea to the North's scenic Mount Kumgang.

The factory park was suspended in 2016 amid tensions over the North's nuclear and missile programs and the tour program was halted in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot dead near the mountain resort for allegedly trespassing in an off-limits area.

Unification Minister Lee In-young (L) speaks during a meeting with business leaders at a hotel in Seoul on Nov. 23, 2020. (Yonhap)
Unification Minister Lee In-young (2nd from R), who is in charge of inter-Korean affairs, speaks during a meeting with business leaders at a Seoul hotel on Nov. 23, 2020. (Yonhap)

julesyi@yna.co.kr
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