South Korea Approves First Civilian Contact with North Korea Under Moon’s Delegation

Paul Lee, May 26, 2017, 9:50 a.m.


South Korea's unification ministry on Friday approved a plan by a nongovernmental organization for contact with North Korea in a sign of Seoul's move to gradually resume inter-Korean exchanges. The government gave the green light to the request by the Korean Sharing Movement to contact with North Koreans to discuss ways to resume the supply of assistance and cooperative projects, according to government officials.

It marks the first such approval since the administration of liberal President Moon Jae-in took office early this month amid expectations of engagement with North Korea. The humanitarian assistance body filed for approval from the Ministry of Unification on the plan to discuss its assistance programs with North Korea in early May, including a joint project to tackle malaria.

If the discussion goes smoothly, the group would again seek the ministry's approval in order to ship relief goods to North Korea, the head of the group, Kang Young-sik, said. They also plan to send officials to North Korea, including ruling party lawmaker Won Hye-young, who co-heads the group, although it would also require approval from the ministry.

"If the discussion is successful, a visit to North Korea would be possible around June 10," Kang said. The ministry said Monday that it plans to resume civilian inter-Korean exchanges to the extent that the move would not compromise the international sanctions regime.

South Korea said it will sternly respond to North Korea's provocations but also does not believe that long-strained ties will help stability on the divided peninsula. The ministry said Thursday it is reviewing 19 civic groups' requests for such approval as they are seeking to provide humanitarian assistance and pursue projects in development and exchanges in the social and cultural sectors.

Since Moon took office on May 10, expectations have been high that civilian inter-Korean exchanges will be revived. The government under former President Park Geun-hye said it would continue to provide humanitarian assistance to those vulnerable in North Korea, such as infants and pregnant women. But Seoul suspended almost all civilian exchanges when North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January 2016.

Last year the government approved only the Eugene Bell Foundation Korea's delivery of medication for tuberculosis to North Korea. Established in 1996, the Korean Sharing Movement has worked on agricultural assistance and nutrition projects for North Korean children.

Any trip to the North requires the Seoul government's approval, as well as the North's consent. The two Koreas remain technically in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
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