An advance inspection team of South Korean officials and civilians visited North Korea’s border city of Kaesong on Friday to prepare for the opening of a joint liaison office.
The 14-member team headed by Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung crossed the military demarcation line at 8:34 a.m. via a western land route to check possible locations, facilities and equipment.
“I believe the establishment of the liaison office between South and North Korea is the first step in implementing the Panmunjeom Declaration and a significant measure for the sustainable development of South-North relations,” Chun told pool reporters before departure at the customs, immigration and quarantine office in Paju.
The Panmunjeom Declaration is an agreement reached during a summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on April 27.
“We will thoroughly check the relevant facilities so as to launch the liaison office as soon as possible,” he added.
The trip marks the first time South Koreans have set foot in Kaesong since February 2016, after the Seoul government shut down a jointly operated industrial complex over the North’s military provocations and pursuit of nuclear weapons. The economic zone remains officially shuttered with layers of sanctions on North Korea in place.
In a meeting of high-level officials last week, the two Koreas agreed to open the liaison office “at an early date” in anticipation of increased cross-border exchanges following the leaders’ summit meetings in April and May.
The issue was expected to be addressed earlier, but the North had canceled a high-level meeting initially scheduled for May 16, citing the South Korea-US joint military drills.
If preparations go as planned, the office is expected to open as early as this month.
Friday’s team includes officials from KT, a telecom carrier, and Hyundai Asan, which had played an active role in past inter-Korean economic projects such as cross-border tour programs. Hyundai Asan still holds the rights to act as a key operator of the joint factory park.
Though the roster fueled speculations on revival of the complex, the South’s Ministry of Unification declined Thursday to link the establishment of liaison office to the revival of the industrial complex, saying the issue will be considered in tandem with progress in the denuclearization of the North.
Asked if the team plans to check the facilities in the Kaesong industrial park as well, Chun emphasized that his trip is focused on inspecting things needed for the operation of the liaison office.
During a regular press briefing Friday, Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said one of the team’s main tasks is to check the facilities necessary for daily work and life for South Korean personnel to be stationed at the Kaesong office.
Earlier this week, a ministry official declined to confirm media reports the Seoul government had submitted to Pyongyang a request for immunity from arrest and detention for officials stationed at the office, in a manner similar to the privilege granted to diplomats by the Vienna Convention. The official, who requested anonymity, admitted the South’s proposal addressing operational details of the liaison office was delivered to the North at the recent high-level meeting, but deemed the reports “speculative” in nature.
Launched in 2004, the joint industrial park in Kaesong was lauded as one of the most successful inter-Korean economic projects, combining the South’s capital with the North’s cheap labor.
By Jung Min-kyung (email@example.com) & Joint Press Corps