Nuclear envoy heads to U.S. to discuss ways to bolster inter-Korean exchanges within sanctions regime

SEOUL-- South Korea's chief nuclear envoy said Wednesday that he will discuss with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun ways to bolster inter-Korean exchanges within the framework of sanctions.

Lee Do-hoon, special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, made the remark as he headed to Washington a day after President Moon Jae-in called for expanding cross-border exchanges to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

"At a time when relations between the North and the U.S. are stalled, we see a need arising strongly for improving inter-Korean ties so as to facilitate U.S.-North Korea relations," Lee told reporters at Incheon International Airport before his departure.

"I'm going to meet with U.S. administration officials, including special representative Biegun and discuss what South Korea can do, the U.S. can do and the two countries can do together to break through the current situation," he said.

During a New Year's news conference Tuesday, Moon emphasized the need to expand inter-Korean ties as a way to break the impasse in the denuclearization talks and win international support for partial sanctions relief for Pyongyang.

Despite international sanctions, Moon said there are still ways to bolster cross-border exchanges, such as allowing individual tours to the North and seeking joint reconciliation projects in regions along the heavily fortified border.

"The U.S. has adhered to its principled stance of both dialogue and sanctions. But if you look back a year or more, you can see that the U.S. position points more to facilitating dialogue within the solid framework of sanctions," Lee said.

"How to facilitate dialogue within this framework is a matter of mutual concern," he said.

Earlier in Washington, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned a North Korean trading corporation, Namgang Trading Corp. (NTC), and a China-based North Korean lodging facility, Beijing Sukbakso, for involvement in North Korean labor exports in violation of international sanctions.

During the four-day trip, Lee is scheduled to meet with Deputy Secretary Biegun, who doubles as the chief envoy for nuclear negotiations with the North, and other officials.

In response to Moon's call for expanding inter-Korean exchanges, the U.S. State Department said that Seoul and Washington are "committed to close coordination on our unified response to North Korea" and stressed the importance of implementing sanctions.

"The United States and our ally the Republic of Korea coordinate closely on our efforts related to the DPRK, and we are committed to close coordination on our unified response to North Korea," a State Department spokesperson said in response to a Yonhap query, referring to North Korea by the abbreviation for its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"All U.N. Member States are required to implement U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions," the spokesperson added, without saying whether individuals tours to North Korea fall under the scope of sanctions.

Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have made little progress after a 2019 February summit between their leaders ended without a deal and subsequent working-level talks in Sweden in October failed.

The two nuclear envoys last spoke by phone on New Year's Day after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un warned he would soon unveil "a new strategic weapon" and take "shocking actual action" in protest of the stalled nuclear dialogue with Washington.

The North said last week the nuclear talks can resume only when the U.S. fully accepts Pyongyang's demands and warned the South not to "meddle in" the relationship between its leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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