The latest victim of the Wuhan coronavirus – and, perhaps, of an equally risky geopolitical climate, cross-DMZ relations: The two Koreas will close their Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong.
Because of concerns about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, the two sides will “temporarily” shut down the office after a joint consultative meeting, a Unification Ministry official told Asia Times on Thursday.
The official was unable to predict when the office would reopen. However, a previous inter-Korean project that was temporarily closed in 2016, the Kaesong Industrial Zone, never reopened.
Four cases of the 2019-nCoV virus that was first identified in Wuhan, China, have been confirmed in South Korea, and although none have been reported in North Korea, the North has closed its borders as a quarantine measure.
With no diplomatic relations linking Seoul and Pyongyang, the Joint Liaison Office, established in September 2018 and staffed by officials from both Koreas, was not simply a de facto embassy: It was the only fully dedicated government-to-government body set up by the two states since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
While there are telephone and fax lines installed at the better-known truce village of Panmunjom inside the Demilitarized Zone, which is manned by troops, face-to-face discussions there are rare.
The Unification Ministry official was unable to say how many staff were at the Liaison Office, but South Korean media reports say 17 South Korean government officials and 41 support staff. Asia Times understands that there were between five and 10 North Korean officials assigned to the office.
The office was the biggest tangible outcome of 2018 – a euphoric year for inter-Korean relations. That year saw a Northern team compete at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics held in the South at the last moment, and three-inter Korean summits have taken place, as well as the first-ever North Korean-US leaders’ summit, held in Singapore.
But relations have turned icy since, in sync with the downturn in Pyongyang-Washington ties that followed the breakdown of the Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit in Hanoi last February. The official inter-Korean Friday meetings that had been held at the Joint Liaison office have been suspended ever since.
Another one bites the dust …
The office stood on the site of an abandoned inter-Korean industrial park on the outskirts of the city of Kaesong, which lies just north of the DMZ.
The industrial park also has a forlorn history of unfulfilled potential.
It got under way in 2005 with small South Korean manufacturers employing North Korean staff; at its height, tens of thousands of North Koreans worked there. The zone became a flagship project for inter-Korean economic cooperation, and the blueprint for a potential South Korea-led modernization of the North’s economy.
However, it was “temporarily” closed by Seoul in 2016 amid inter-Korean tensions. It has never reopened since.
And Kaesong was not the first ambitious inter-Korean project to go under.
Previously, a joint tourism resort, built by Hyundai for South Korean visitors to North Korea’s scenic Mount Keumgang on the peninsula’s east coast, had opened in 1998. It was shuttered in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean soldier in an apparent accident.
Currently, there is no cross-border trade, investment or economic cooperation of any kind linking the two Koreas.
More bad news for Moon
The closure of the office is yet another blow for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who, even in the face of worsening relations, has energetically championed inter-Korean ties.
In his recent New Year’s speech, Moon once again invited Kim Jong Un to Seoul – a visit originally expected as a reciprocal visit in December 2018, after Moon had visited Pyongyang in September of that year.
North Korea has not responded to the latest invitation.
Moon also floated the idea of individual South Korean tourists visiting the North. Now, that too is impossible, with the country accepting no visitors because of the Wuhan coronavirus.
An expert told Asia Times he was downbeat about the chance of North Korean reciprocating the South’s recent imprecations.
“This is not the first time [North Korea has] tried to freeze relations with South Korea – they don’t only criticize South Korean leaders and government, they are cutting off their relationship with South Korea,” said Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Hankook University of Foreign Studies. “I think they are very angry at South Korea’s role as an intermediary or broker between North Korea and the US.”
The North does not appreciate the South’s continual efforts to talk and engage in cooperative projects, said Choi, who previously headed the think-tank the Korea Institute of National Unification.
And the coronavirus may just have provided an excuse for Thursday’s announced Liaison Office closure. Choi guessed that the closure was a “North Korean initiative” and made clear that any hopes for improved cross-border relations are “wishful thinking” unless there is first an improvement in North Korea-US relations.
“They don’t care about South Korea,” Choi said. “South Korea is easy to handle if they are successful in relations with the United States.”