North Korea seeks ‘substantive outcome’ in economic cooperation talks with South

FILE PHOTO: Head of the North Korean delegation, Ri Son Gwon shakes hands with South Korean counterpart Cho Myoung-gyon as they exchange documents after their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Korea Pool/File Photo

SEOUL (Reuters) – North and South Korea met on Monday to discuss the next steps in their pact to renew economic cooperation, with the North saying it wanted a “substantive outcome” from the talks, against the backdrop of U.S. concerns over their haste to warm ties.

The talks in the border village of Panmunjom were led by the South’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon and Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the North’s committee for peaceful reunification that handles cross-border affairs.

“We are at a very critical moment for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the advancement of inter-Korean relations, and there’s also a second North Korea-U.S. summit coming up,” Cho told reporters before leaving for the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Monday’s meeting was intended to discuss follow-up steps after a third summit last month between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the South’s unification ministry said.

Moon and Kim agreed to resume economic cooperation, including relinking railways and roads. North Korea also said it would permanently abolish key missile facilities in the presence of foreign experts.

Speaking before Monday’s meeting, Cho said he and Ri would work to finalize the schedule for follow-on talks to last month’s summit, including a joint study for the rail and road initiative.

The talks should produce a “substantive outcome,” not just a “public relations effect,” Ri told reporters at the meeting venue.

The meeting comes amid U.S. concerns that the warming of ties between the neighbors may be outpacing negotiations to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

A military deal between the two Koreas, endorsed by Moon and Kim at their third summit, has provoked “discontent” from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, South Korea’s foreign minister said last week.

Kang Kyung-wha’s remarks amounted to a rare confirmation of discord between Seoul and Washington, though the allies have said they remain in lockstep on North Korea.

DEFECTOR BANNED
Ahead of Monday’s talks, South Korea banned a North Korean defector-turned-journalist from the press pool covering the event.

“I’m devastated,” Kim Myong-sung of the Chosun Ilbo, a conservative South Korean newspaper, told Reuters, adding that he had been told of the decision just before he was due to depart for the DMZ.

“It was an unacceptable decision they made unilaterally, which limits my activity as a journalist.”

A Unification Ministry spokesman said the decision was made because the talks were held in a “confined space” and Kim was “widely well-known”, but added there had been no pressure from North Korea.

North Korean defectors and human rights groups in the South say they struggle to raise money and face pressure to avoid criticism of Pyongyang as cross-border relations thaw.

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