Officials from North and South Korea attend the opening ceremony of the inter-Korean governmental liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, on Friday. Photo; Joint Press Corps/Ministry of Unification
Officials from North and South Korea attend the opening ceremony of the inter-Korean governmental liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea in 2018. Photo; Joint Press Corps/Ministry of Unification

In an empty industrial complex outside an ancient capital city, the two Koreas opened a joint liaison office on Friday, creating an un-precedented, face-to-face channel for cross-border communications.

The liaison office, a concrete sign of improving inter-Korean ties, is just outside the North Korean city of Kaesong and was agreed to at the inter-Korean summit in April between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The office opening comes just prior to the third summit between Kim and Moon in Pyongyang next week, from Sept. 18 to 20.

“The inter-Korean joint liaison office is a channel for round-the-clock communication in the new era of peace,” South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said in a congratulatory speech that was reported by a press pool at the scene.

“From today, South and North Korea can have direct consultations 24 hours a day and 365 days a year over issues relating to advances in inter-Korean relations, peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.

“It will be a big catalyst for non-governmental exchange and cooperation, [civic groups] will not have to go to Shenyang or Beijing,’ noted Moon Chung-in, a senior advisor to the Moon administration, who spoke to foreign reporters on Thursday. “They can send messages through the Kaesong office.”

The Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2013. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

North-South office opens

South Korea will station about 20 civil servants there, while the North will deploy 15-20 officials, according to reports. Seoul’s Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung will serve as a co-head for the office along with Jon Chong-su, a vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, the North Korean counterpart to the South’s unification ministry.

Officials from various branches of the government will be stationed at the office, a Unification Ministry official told Asia Times. The two Koreas are discussing joint projects in forestry and historical architectural restoration, which a source familiar with cross-border affairs called “low-impact, easy to do projects” which would not breach sanctions, but which would build trust and confidence between the estranged sides.

There has been some controversy in conservative circles in the South as to whether oil and equipment the South transported to the office violated UN sanctions. This concern was pooh-poohed by presidential adviser Moon.

“Eighty tons of heavy oil in Kaesong is for the consumption of South Korea officials,” Moon, who also noted that Seoul contacted the UN sanctions committee over the issue, said.

Since the establishment of two competing Koreas on the peninsula in 1948, the rival states have neither recognized one another diplomatically, nor do they maintain embassies – or any other offices – in each other’s capitals. This means that for official talks, they have relied upon their respective missions to the United Nations in New York or have held meetings in the truce village of Panmunjom – channels which have proven cumbersome.

China was a favored location for civilian exchanges, and China, and cities in Europe, such as Berlin and Helsinki, were used for back-channel negotiations.

Medieval capital

Kaesong – also spelled Gaesong – was the capital of the medieval Koryo dynasty, from which modern Korea takes its name. It lies just over the Demilitarized Zone, roughly 40 miles north of Seoul and 70 miles south of North Korean capital Pyongyang.

The city was South Korean in 1950 and was captured by North Korean troops in the opening minutes of their June 25 invasion – troops infiltrated the city aboard an unscheduled train and launched an assault directly off the platform. During the war, it was used for truce negotiations, so escaped the bombing which leveled most of North Korea.

Kaesong remained in North Korean hands at the end of the fighting in 1953 and is today noted for its fine collection of traditional architecture.

In 2004, during Seoul’s “Sunshine Policy” of cross border engagement, Kaesong became the setting for an inter-Korean industrial park in which small, low-tech Korean firms in sectors such as textiles and shoe manufacturing set up operations, employing the North’s cheap labor.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex, which was separate from the city and fenced off from its surroundings, remained the divided peninsula’s flagship cross-border cooperation project until its closure by the South in 2016 amid military tension.

North Korea laborers hard at work in the Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2013. Photo; Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

The liaison office in the empty industrial park occupies a building previously used by junior-level South Korean government officials who oversaw the private sector operations at the complex.

There have been hopes among some of the South Korean businessmen who operated in the area prior to 2016 – a number of who attended the opening ceremony – that the industrial park can restart operations. However, with Seoul wary of angering Washington over breaches of UN Security Council sanctions, there is no indication that is about to happen.

Moreover, while various government branches will have offices in the office, the Ministry of National Defense, however, does not – at least, at this stage – have plans to station staff at the Kaesong office, MOND personnel told Asia Times on the sidelines of Friday’s Seoul Defense Dialog conference.

This indicates that the MOND will continue to rely on cross-border military hotlines, related fax machines and the Panmunjom meeting channel, which will ensure South Korean remains fully in synch with the United Nations Command on the peninsula.

The commanding general of the UN Command is dual hatted; he also commands the 28,500 US troops on the peninsula.