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Seoul doesn't oppose NK engaging with US, Japan: unification minister

Minister Kim Yung-ho says N. Korea 'must have been profoundly shocked' over S. Korea-Cuba ties

Feb. 28, 2024 - 18:05 By Ji Da-gyum
South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho speaks during an exclusive interview with The Korea Herald on Friday at his office in Seoul. (Im Se-jun/ The Korea Herald)

The Yoon Suk Yeol government "does not oppose North Korea engaging with the United States and Japan," the South Korean unification minister said, concurrently acknowledging that obstacles remain for North Korea to overcome to improve relations with the two countries.

"The resolution of issues pertaining to Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea appears to be a prerequisite for the advancement of relations between Japan and North Korea," Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho said Friday during his 90-minute interview with The Korea Herald.

The minister addressed the matter amid growing speculation of clandestine contacts between Japan and North Korea, prompted by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo-jong's statement issued on Feb. 15.

Kim Yo-jong raised the prospect of a potential visit by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to Pyongyang, urging Japan to make a political decision aimed at improving bilateral ties. She emphasized the need to refrain from raising issues such as the abduction matter, which she claimed had already been resolved, as well as North Korea's missile and nuclear programs.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi remarked the following day that Japan is "paying attention" to the remarks. Despite this, Hayashi emphasized that Japan remains unable to accept North Korea's assertions regarding the resolution of abductee problems.

The unification minister also emphasized that North Korea's denuclearization would be a precondition for improving ties with the US.

"To establish diplomatic relations or normalize relations between the US and North Korea, the nuclear issue must ultimately be resolved," the minister said.

"Normalization of diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea would eventually require ratification from the US Senate. The question arises: would the US Senate ratify it if North Korea has not completely dismantled its nuclear weapons? This remains an obstacle."

The minister emphasized the need for North Korea to deviate from its current path of self-isolation, noting that "North Korea has diplomatically isolated itself." Instead, the Kim Jong-un regime should consider responding to the repeated overtures from South Korea, the US, and Japan.

The minister explained that the Yoon government has proposed the 'Audacious Initiative,' a comprehensive roadmap aimed at achieving North Korea's denuclearization through negotiations. The leaders of South Korea, the US, and Japan reiterated their commitment to re-establishing dialogue with North Korea "with no preconditions," in the joint statement issued following the Camp David summit.

The minister also noted that "North Korea, of course, must have been profoundly shocked" by the recent establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Cuba in mid-February.

The South Korean presidential office had earlier clarified that North Korea and Cuba signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation during then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro's visit to North Korea in 1986. The preamble of the treaty included a passage affirming the two countries' "fraternal solidarity relationship."

North Korea has not publicly expressed its stance on the matter through state-run media outlets as of Wednesday morning. Nevertheless, notable is the absence of any Cuba-related news coverage by its state media since the announcement of establishing ties between South Korea and Cuba.

When asked about the growing alignment between Russia and North Korea, the minister characterized the bilateral relationship as "expedient."

"The military cooperation between Russia and North Korea has been forged due to the Ukraine war, thus it is not as robust as the cooperation system between South Korea, the US, and Japan," the minister said.

About the feasibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to North Korea amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, the minister said, "While predicting Putin's visit to North Korea remains challenging, we cannot entirely rule out the possibility of such a visit."

In January, the Kremlin expressed hope for such a visit to occur "in the foreseeable future," following an invitation extended by the North Korean leader. Putin had previously accepted an invitation from Kim during a summit held in September last year

The minister however dismissed the claims that the tough policies of South Korea, the US and Japan have prompted China, and Russia, North Korea to step up multilateral and bilateral cooperation.

"This argument is somewhat flawed in its sequence," the minister said, pointing out the fragility of alignment among Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang.

"Nonetheless, the trilateral relationship between North Korea, China, and Russia differs from that between South Korea, the US, and Japan. The leaders of North Korea, China, and Russia have never convened together, and it will be difficult for them to do so in the future."