S. Korea embarrassed by N. Korea’s sudden withdrawal from liaison office

SEOUL AJU - In a sudden and unexplained move, North Korea withdrew from an inter-Korean liaison office on an order from above as denuclearization talks were in a deadlock following a failed summit between U.S. and North Korean leaders in Vietnam in February.

The North’s action on Friday sprang a surprise on South Korea because North Korean officials gave no explanation, saying only that they were following an order from their superior officers. South Korea expressed regret and convened a high-level security meeting at the office of President Moon Jae-in.

The liaison office in the North Korean border city of Kaesong opened in September last year to facilitate inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation under an agreement between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Talks have been held on arranging the video reunion of families separated by the division of the Korean peninsula.

North Korean officials left soon after they delivered their decision, the South’s Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung told reporters, adding South Korean officials would stay in the office because the North said it would not care about their presence.

“The government regrets North Korea’s decision to withdraw and hopes that the North will return quickly to normalize the operation of the inter-Korean joint liaison office as agreed upon between the two Koreas,” Chun said. “I think we need to take a little more time to grasp and judge the situation.”

Chun called for a careful approach, saying he thinks North Korea is breaking an inter-Korean agreement. “All I can say here is that we hope the operation of inter-Korean liaison office will return to normal at an early date.”

The office in the suspended inter-Korean industrial zone served as a consultation and communication channel, manned by government officials from Seoul and Pyongyang. North Korea has hailed it as a big step forward for co-prosperity and rapprochement between the two Koreas.

The two Koreas opened the Kaesong industrial zone in December 2004 as a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation. The zone once hosted about 120 South Korean firms manned by more than 50,000 North Korean workers. Seoul shut it down in 2016 in retaliation for the North’s ballistic missile and nuclear tests.

Moon and Kim have agreed to reactivate cross-border exchanges and economic projects. However, Washington is reluctant to ease sanctions until considerable progress is made in denuclearization.