Just days ahead of the third meeting of their leaders this year, North and South Korea have opened a joint liaison office. The office, which is located in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, is the first of its kind. Since the two Koreas separated post-World War II, the predominant channels of communication have been phone and fax. The primary objective of the office is to function as a facilitator of more rapid, personable discussions regarding inter-Korean issues, and to prevent dangerous misunderstandings, which it hopes to achieve by providing a 24-hour forum to hold peace talks. The creation of this space in which representatives of the two nations may meet in person demonstrates marked progress towards peace in the peninsula.
Upon the opening of the office, North Korean chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, Ri Son-gwon, applauded the project as “a broad avenue for peace and prosperity.” Staffing the office will be around 20 individuals from each nation. The South Korean employees will be housed in a nearby complex, working in office during business hours on weekdays. Duty officers from both nations will, however, be on call around the clock. Jointly heading the office are South Korean Vice Minister of Unification, Chun Hae-sung, and the North Korean Vice Chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, Jon Jong-su. The two will primarily work from their respective nation’s capitals but will visit the office weekly to hold official meetings.
The building itself is a four-story relic of a brief moment of better relations between the two Koreas after the end of World War II. Once a factory complex, the building had been closed in 2016 due to escalating tensions regarding North Korea’s long-range rocket capabilities. As for the office, the building was fully renovated, and will serve both as a place for meetings, as well as lodgings for the diplomats of both nations. The rest of the factory complex, however, is unlikely to see a return to its former use — as the international sanctions placed on North Korea remain firmly in place.
Plans for the office had first been put into place during the initial meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Moon Jae-in, which resulted in the Panmunjom agreement, where Kim committed to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The liaison office represents a concrete step towards making good on the promises made during this meeting, and will put pressure on Kim to commit to stronger language regarding peace and denuclearization in the upcoming meeting between the two leaders.
South Korean officials also report that they hope the United States will take note of the progress South Korea is making towards opening up to its northern counterpart. President Moon argues that Kim respects dedicated, concrete bargaining, and that if the U.S. wishes to progress their negotiations with North Korea, they should back the office by considering similar initiatives.
The president further urged the United Nations to relax the sanctions placed on North Korea. This, he pushed, would enable the two Koreas to engage in much needed modernization projects for the North’s infrastructure — a promise President Moon made to Kim at their first meeting in return for easing military tensions at the border.
The United States has already engaged in negotiations with Kim during the historic Singapore summit this past June. However, though there were verbal agreements of denuclearization made, North Korea has yet to follow through. President Moon suggests that this is because of a perception gap between North Korean and United States officials. From North Korea’s perspective, concessions such as closing of rocket test sites have already been made and will continue incrementally. The United States refusing to lift any sanctions or begin drafting a peace treaty to end the Korean War until denuclearization is unilaterally achieved does not, in the eyes of Kim, match North Korea’s progress.
Kim has previously stated that he is open to denuclearization before the end of President Trump’s term in office. It is simply now a matter of offering the incentives he is looking for. It is the hope of President Moon that the opening of this first liaison office and his upcoming meeting with Kim will provide the impetus for the Western world — in particular the United States — to begin improving relations with the North. Hopefully, the meeting’s conclusion will bring stronger commitments to peace across the peninsula and bring an end to the stall in negotiations between the North and South Korea.