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A civic group stages a rally in front of Cheong Wa Dae,<strong></strong> Thursday, calling for a breakup of the South Korea-U.S. working group. / Yonhap
A civic group stages a rally in front of Cheong Wa Dae, Thursday, calling for a breakup of the South Korea-U.S. working group. / Yonhap

By Kang Seung-woo

Amid deteriorating inter-Korean relations, a South Korea-U.S. working group is taking flak for hampering progress in bilateral ties due to its excessively harsh standards adopted on North Korea.

Critics say unlike its initial goal of coordinating policy on the North, the group is obsessed with whether Seoul-driven initiatives to engage with Pyongyang violate economic sanctions on the reclusive state, with some even calling for its breakup.

The working group, co-chaired by Lee Do-hoon, special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs and U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun, was set up in November 2018 following three inter-Korean summits earlier that year.

Upon its establishment, the government had high hopes that it would be in close communication with the U.S. via the organization. But due to Washington's stern stance that inter-Korean economic cooperation should proceed in step with significant progress in denuclearizing the North, the group has been more focused on whether inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation violate international and U.S. sanctions.

Where is Kim Jong-un?Where is Kim Jong-un? 2020-06-18 18:28  |  Politics Ruling, opposition parties take stern stance toward North Korea Ruling, opposition parties take stern stance toward North Korea 2020-06-18 17:14  |  Politics Rice and masks for people of North Korea [PHOTOS] Rice and masks for people of North Korea [PHOTOS] 2020-06-18 17:01  |  Photo News For example, in October 2018 when businessmen, who ran factories at the now-suspended Gaeseong Industrial Complex, received approval from the North Korean authorities to visit the inter-Korean business zone to check on their assets there, the unification ministry did not give permission for their trip to the North Korean border city, and it was highly speculated that the working group was behind this.

In addition, when the government intended to send 200,000 doses of Tamiflu to the North last year, the working group put the brakes on the provision out of concerns that it could violate the sanctions. Also, inter-Korean railway cooperation has been delayed due to discussions with the U.S. about possible violation of sanctions.

A series of the working group-caused roadblocks seems to have made the North run out of patience with the government's inability to fulfill inter-Korean joint declarations.

Since the launch of the working group, the Kim Jong-un regime has repeatedly condemned it, citing the South's dependence on "foreign forces."

"Even before the ink on the North-South agreement was dry, President Moon Jae-in accepted the South Korea-U.S. working group under the coercion of his master and presented all issues related to the North-South ties to White House. This has all boomeranged," Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of Kim Jong-un, said in a statement, Wednesday.

Referring to the resignation offer by Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul over the worsening inter-Korean ties, Jeong Se-hyun, a former unification minister, told a forum Thursday that despite his sub-rosa efforts to engage with the North, he may have had trouble in overcoming the working group's opposition.

"As every effort hit a snag, I think that the minister may have felt frustrated," Jeong said.

Rep. Hong Ihk-pyo of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea said, "The establishment of the working group saw the government do nothing for inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation. I think it is time to dismantle the organization."

Amid growing debate over the working group, Lee made an unannounced visit to the U.S., Wednesday, to discuss the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula, raising speculation that he may have talks with Biegun about the future direction of the working group's operations.

During his visit to Washington, Lee is also expected to meet National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien ― although the foreign ministry did not elaborate on his itinerary.


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