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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

North and South Korea open first liaison office 

Latest sign of warming ties comes ahead of third meeting between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un

A banner in Seoul shows South Korean President Moon Jae-in meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. AFP
A banner in Seoul shows South Korean President Moon Jae-in meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. AFP

The rival Koreas on Friday opened their first liaison office near their tense border to facilitate better communication and exchanges ahead of a summit in Pyongyang next week.

The office's opening at the North Korean border town of Kaesong is the latest in a series of reconciliatory steps the Koreas have taken this year. The office is the first of its kind since the Korean peninsula was divided at the end of the Second World War.

The Koreas so far have been using telephone and fax-like communication channels when they want to arrange talks and exchange messages. But those channels have been often suspended when tensions rose over North Korea's nuclear programme.

In an opening ceremony at Kaesong, South Korea's Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said the office would become the "cradle of Korean co-prosperity."

"We'll sit face to face, exchange our thoughts fast and accurately and put our heads together to resolve difficult matters," he said.

About 15-20 South Korean officials are expected to stay at the office and a nearby lodging facility in Kaesong during weekdays and take turns staffing the office on weekends, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.

They will deal with North Korean officials stationed at the office to discuss various inter-Korean issues, exchange messages from their capitals and facilitate civilian exchange programmes, the ministry said.

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Kaesong is where the Koreas set up a jointly run factory complex that has since been closed. The park, which combined South Korean initiatives, capital and technology with North Korea's cheap labour, was seen as a test case for unification of the Koreas. But its operation was suspended in 2016 amid an escalating standoff over North Korea's long-range rocket launch.

The resumption of the Kaesong park and other dormant inter-Korean co-operation projects is unlikely happen anytime soon because US-led international sanctions on North Korea remain in place. Seoul officials said workers renovated some of the buildings used in the complex to use as the liaison office and the lodging facility.

The liaison office's opening came before South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meet for the third time this year next week to discuss denuclearisation of the peninsula and other issues.

During the previous meetings with Mr Moon and a separate historic summit with US President Donald Trump, Mr Kim has expressed his vague commitment to complete denuclearisation of the peninsula. He has also dismantled his nuclear and rocket-engine testing sites. But nuclear diplomacy was later stalemated as US officials demanded Mr Kim take more significant steps before receiving concessions like a joint declaration to end the Korean War.

Mr Moon is to fly to Pyongyang on Tuesday for a three-day trip that he says will focus on facilitating talks between the United States and North Korea and finding ways to ease a military standoff along the Koreas' heavily fortified border.

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