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Moon vows to focus more on inter-Korean relations in 2020 in New Year’s address

South Korean President Moon Jae-in gives his New Year’s address at the Blue House on Jan. 7. (Yonhap News). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

SEOUL, Jan 8, 2020, Hankyoreh. During his New Year’s address on Jan. 7, South Korean President Moon Jae-in voiced his strong commitment to improving inter-Korean relations, remarking that he hopes that “South and North Korea will continue working together to quickly create the conditions for State Affairs Commission Chairman Kim Jong-un to pay a return visit [to Seoul].” The remarks appear to indicate that Moon intends to take direct action to improve inter-Korean relations, in contrast with last year, which he spent waiting for progress in North Korea’s negotiations with the US, Hankyoreh reported.

During his New Year’s address at the Blue House on Tuesday, Moon said, “I’m willing to hold multiple meetings and keep engaging in dialogue.” Once again, he proposed that Kim pay a visit to Seoul, as he had agreed to do in the Pyongyang Joint Statement, issued on Sept. 19, 2018.

Moon proposes Kim Jong-un’s visit to Seoul

“While an international solution will be required to protect the three principles for the peace of the Korean Peninsula ― namely, the rejection of war, mutual security, and joint prosperity ― there are also matters that can be accomplished through cooperation between South and North Korea,” Moon went on to say, offering plans for restoring trust, which is essential if Kim is to visit Seoul.

“The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a place of incredible value in terms of its ecology and history, as well as to inter-Korean reconciliation and peace. Jointly registering the DMZ as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is something we could start on immediately. We hope that North Korea will respond in the affirmative,” Moon said.

“I propose initiating cooperation in the border area for the joint safety of 80 million Koreans. I believe that Kim Jong-un holds the same commitment.” In a speech at a peace forum in Oslo, Norway, in June 2019, Moon proposed that South and North Korea work together around their border to control forest fires, harmful insect infestations, and livestock infections.

Moon also stressed that “South and North Korea will continue to work toward finding practical ways” to resume operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tourism to Mt. Kumgang and to connect highways and railroads between the two countries, projects on which the two sides agreed in their Sept. 19 statement, but have yet to implement.

Calls for inter-Korean cooperation in sports

“I hope that talented North Korean athletes will compete in the 1st East Asian Weightlifting Championships and the World Table Tennis Championships when they are held in South Korea. We will also continue deliberations about fielding a unified team at the Tokyo Olympic Games and making a joint entrance,” Moon added.

Moon’s proposals seem to reflect an awareness that, over the past year, North Korea-US relations unfortunately haven’t driven forward inter-Korean relations and to emphasize his determination not to ignore the unique nature and special characteristics of inter-Korean relations in the future. The South Korean government, Moon effectively said, is going to be more vocal about inter-Korean relations.

Moon appears to have had such considerations in mind when he said, “The fact is that both South and North Korea have prioritized North Korea-US dialogue over the past year. We’ve become more keenly aware of the need to devise a practical way to further enhance inter-Korean cooperation as we continue to work for the success of North Korea-US dialogue.”

“Because of the uncertainty of the North Korea-US negotiations, Moon can’t leave inter-Korean relations on the back burner any longer. Moon appears to have been stressing that he might pursue inter-Korean relations alongside support of North Korea-US dialogue or, if necessary, put the priority on inter-Korean relations,” said Hong Min, head of North Korean research at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

“While Kim Jong-un emphasized a ‘frontal breakthrough’ in the plenary session, he can be seen as having deferred ‘action.’ In that sense, Kim might give some thought to South Korea’s proposals, and the importance and unique character of inter-Korean relations,” said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

Unclear whether N. Korea will accept proposals

It’s unclear, however, whether North Korea will end up accepting the proposals. In Moon’s New Year’s address, he didn’t say anything about easing sanctions or ending South Korea’s joint military exercises with the US, the matters of the greatest interest to North Korea.

“What North Korea wants to hear is South Korea’s position on matters directly related to security, such as halting its joint military exercises with the US and suspending weapons acquisition. In the absence of that, North Korea isn’t very likely to accept these proposals,” predicted an expert on inter-Korean relations who asked to remain anonymous.

By Seong Yeon-cheol and Noh Ji-won, staff reporters

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