Special to USA TODAY
Published 9:19 AM EDT Sep 14, 2018
SEOUL – North and South Korea opened their first liaison office near their tense border on Friday, in a bid to facilitate better communication ahead of an eagerly-awaited summit between their leaders in Pyongyang next week.
The opening – in the North Korean border town of Kaesong – is the latest in a series of reconciliatory steps the rival Koreas have taken this year. The office is the first of its kind since the nations were divided at the end of World War II in 1945.
The two neighbors were previously using telephone and fax-like communication channels to exchange messages, which were often suspended when tensions rose over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said during the opening ceremony that the new office will become the “cradle of Korean co-prosperity.”
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“We’ll sit face to face, exchange our thoughts fast and accurately and put our heads together to resolve difficult matters,” he said.
Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, said during the ceremony that the office would help the Koreas have “candid conversations” and further build ties, South Korean media reported.
The office will be headed by senior unification officials from both countries, who will hold an official meeting once a week. About 20 South Koreans will work there from 9 to 5, sleep at nearby lodgings on weekdays and take turns staffing the office on weekends.
Seoul officials said workers renovated some of the buildings at the now-stalled inter-Korean Kaesong industrial complex to use as the liaison office and the officials’ accommodation.
The industrial park – which combined South Korean ventures, capital and technology with cheap labor from North Korea – was seen as a test case for unification of the two countries, but its operation was suspended in 2016 amid an escalating standoff over the North’s launches of long-range missiles.
The resumption of the Kaesong industrial complex and other dormant inter-Korean projects aren’t likely to happen soon because U.S.-led international sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs remain in place.
The office’s opening came ahead of a meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next week. At the summit – their third of the year – the leaders will discuss issues including the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Kim expressed a vague commitment to complete denuclearization during the previous meetings with Moon and at a historic summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore in June. He dismantled his nuclear and rocket engine testing sites, but nuclear diplomacy later stalled as U.S. officials demanded that Kim take more significant steps, such as a joint declaration to end the Korean War – which has not officially finished after 65 years – before receiving concessions.
Moon is scheduled to fly to Pyongyang on Tuesday and said that during the three-day trip, he will focus on facilitating talks between the U.S. and North Korea and finding ways to ease the military standoff along the Koreas’ heavily fortified border. The two Koreas on Friday agreed that parts of the summit will be broadcast live on television, according to Moon’s office.
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