US Vice-President Mike Pence (L) and South Korean President Moon Jae-In chat in Singapore on Thursday. Photo: AFP

On the same day that South Korean President Moon Jae-in suggested to United States Vice-President Mike Pence that the US accelerate its ties with North Korea, a delegation of ethnic Korean businesspeople headed into the reclusive and heavily sanctioned state on a four-day trip.

Moon, in Singapore for the ASEAN Summit, which also welcomes China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States, told Pence on Thursday: “In order to realize lasting peace (on the Korean Peninsula), inter-Korean relations should move forward together with North-US relations.”

The comment indicates a plea for accelerated US maneuvers, given that North-South relations and North Korea-US relations are moving at very different tempos.

While the two Koreas are racing ahead with exchanges of sporting and cultural delegations, holding talks on military, political and even environmental matters, and moving ahead with agreements on a DMZ no-fly zone and the joint use of a strategic estuary adjacent to Seoul, Washington-Pyongyang relations appear sluggish if not stalled.

No agreement reached

This situation has raised concerns among some Korea watchers that the much-feared “wedge” is being driven between the two allies.

Since the June Singapore summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump, the two sides have been unable to reach any agreement on how the process of denuclearization should proceed.

The last scheduled meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart Kim Yong Chol was postponed by North Korea earlier this month for unknown reasons.

Talks between the two capitals look unlikely to resume with any oomph until Kim and Trump meet for their second summit in the new year. That meeting is under discussion, but the time and place has yet to be agreed upon, Pence said in Singapore.

In separate meetings in Singapore, both Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a close US ally who has sought, but not been granted talks with North Korea, called for ASEAN to maintain firm sanctions pressure on North Korea.

Elsewhere on Thursday, 97 businesspeople and officials from the World Federation of Korean Association of Commerce traveled to Pyongyang for a four-day trip that will finish Sunday, Yonhap News Agency reported.

The itinerary of the delegation is unknown, but the federation, which represents the Korean diaspora and is based in Seoul, has 246 members in 68 countries, largely representing small and medium-sized businesses.

A new era of peace

In October, a meeting of the organization was addressed by Moon in Incheon, the port city serving Seoul.

“I will start a new era of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula clearing the shadow of war,” Moon told the federation. “When North and South Korea realize one economic community visiting each other freely on the basis of the complete denuclearization and peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula, our people and economy will move to a different step … investments and jobs would be created.”

South Koreans have been unable to do business with the North since Seoul emplaced sanctions on the North in 2010, following fatal military clashes. Businesspeople in Japan and the United States – two countries with major ethnic Korean populations – are also prevented from doing business in North Korea by UN sanctions.

Given its relations with Washington, Seoul is in no position to break UN sanctions.

However, China and Russia – both of which have ethnic Korean populations – seek eased sanctions; both have also been accused by the United States of sanction-busting.

Joseon-jeokk – ethnic Korean Chinese – are key players in the cross-border trade that takes place over the Yalu and Tumen Rivers, which form the border between China and North Korea.

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