South Korea says pushing ahead with North Korea engagement despite stalled talks

SEOUL (Reuters) - Inter-Korean cooperation doesn’t necessarily have to wait for the United States’ denuclearization talks with North Korea to progress, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said on Tuesday after meeting her U.S. and Japanese counterparts in California.

FILE PHOTO - Directional signs bearing North Korean and U.S. flags are seen near the demilitarized zone in Paju, South Korea, June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

“Our basic stance is that North Korea-U.S. talks and inter-Korean dialogue complement each other in a virtuous cycle,” she told reporters after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other diplomats in Palo Alto.

Kang said that with U.S.-North Korea talks in stalemate, it is essential to revive “North Korea’s engagement momentum” through inter-Korean talks.

The meeting came after South Korean President Moon Jae-in said inter-Korean cooperation could help ease the way for sanctions to be lifted on North Korea.

It is unclear whether North Korea would welcome the proposed steps.

Pyongyang has spent the last year criticizing South Korea and has said it plans to demolish a tourist facility at Mount Kumgang, once seen as an example of inter-Korean cooperation.

South Korea suspended tours to the mountain in 2008 after a 53-year-old South Korean tourist was shot and killed when she entered an off-limits area.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eun-han told a briefing on Wednesday that South Korea is actively considering starting “individual tours” to North Korea if they secure guarantees of tourist safety from Pyongyang.

“We understand individual tours are not bounded by the U.N. sanctions,” he said.

“There are issues regarding inter-Korean cooperation that need discussions between South Korea and the United States, but also areas in which South Korea can proceed with independently,” Kim said.

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul told a private gathering in Seoul on Tuesday that the South Korean government will do what it can to mend ties with Pyongyang this year rather than waiting for North Korea’s relations with the United States to improve.

The U.S. State Department has said Washington and Seoul are committed to a unified response to North Korea.

Denuclearization talks are stalled amid North Korean demands for more concessions, and U.S. assertions that Pyongyang must take more concrete steps toward giving up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Kang also said Pompeo repeated a request for South Korea to deploy military resources to a U.S.-led naval force in the Middle East, with the U.S. secretary arguing nations that have “economic stakes” with the region should contribute.

South Korea has not committed to sending troops but Kang said Seoul would “explore how to contribute.”

Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Hyonhee Shin. Writing by Josh Smith and Gerry Doyle