February 4, 2022
SEOUL – The South Korean government is seeking to establish a new office in a city along the China-North Korea border to facilitate inter-Korean exchange and cooperation, amid signs that the North may relax its pandemic border closure soon.
The South-North Korea Exchanges and Cooperation Support Association, which is run by the Unification Ministry, plans to open its first overseas bureau in a Chinese city near the border with North Korea, the ministry said Thursday.
“There are many private organizations that operate in the North Korea-China border area. The purpose of the proposed office is to protect South Korean groups and businessmen and support their activities,” a ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
Last week, the ministry decided to allocate about 338 million won ($280,000) from the inter-Korean cooperation fund to set up a new overseas office of the South-North Korea Exchanges and cooperation Support Association, which currently only has an office in Seoul.
The ministry said the exact location and the timeline of the new office haven’t been decided yet, but noted that it was in search of an appropriate location in one of the border cities.
The plan comes as trains crossed between North Korea and China last month for the first time in nearly two years since the border closure due to the pandemic. It was a sign that the North may slowly reopen its border for trade with China, Pyongyang’s top ally and who accounts for some 90 percent of its trade.
The self-imposed pandemic border shutdown has practically ceased South Korean NGOs and groups sending aid and goods into the North via the Chinese border. But with growing signs that the border may partially open, many groups are gearing up to send humanitarian goods into the country.
While there have been calls for more support for NGOs operating in the border areas, observers have raised concerns over the timing and effectiveness of such an office when inter-Korean relations remain strained. The North has continued to raise tensions on the peninsula with back-to-back missile launches this month, with the latest being a test-firing of an intermediate-range ballistic missile in defiance of UN resolutions.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang has yet to offer an apology or take responsibility over the destruction of the joint liaison office in June 2020, which was built to support exchanges and communications between the two Koreas.
“Establishing a new office that serves similar function to the joint liaison office that the North has unilaterally blew up lacks justification. The issue of recent missile launches and the joint liaison office destruction haven’t been resolved yet,” said Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University. “While the office could be set up in preparation for future and support for NGOs, it will be difficult to actually implement it at this time when the North continues to enforce strong COVID-19 restrictions.”