August 31, 2018 09:43
U.S. Forces Korea Commander Vincent Brooks has blocked a plan by the two Koreas to survey cross-border railways from Seoul to Sinuiju next month. Brooks is also the head of the UN Command which oversees the armistice, and in that capacity he refused permission to travel across the military demarcation line.
Vice Unification Minister of Chun Hae-sung met Brooks right after the decision but was unable to change his mind, according to military sources on Thursday.
The UN Command nixed the plan based on a technicality, citing a lack of supporting documents, but the intent was clearly to put a dampener on warming cross-border ties while denuclearization talks are at an impasse.
According to the ministry, the two Koreas wanted to start a weeklong test run of a six-car train from Seoul Station on Aug. 22 that would inspect the tracks and facilities to the North Korean border, and then switch to a North Korean train from the MDL to Sinuiju.
In a press release, the UNC said it rejected the South Korean government's request for a visit to the North by railway, saying the submitted documents were insufficient.
But the intervention was unusual. "The ministry has plenty of experience in cross-border affairs, including the recent reunions of families separated by the Korean War at Mt. Kumgang and youth soccer matches in Pyongyang," a government source here said. "It's unlikely that it made a mistake like submitting insufficient documents."
Chun's visit to Brooks may reflect the government's embarrassment. But a diplomatic source said, "Chun briefed Brooks on cross-border economic cooperation projects in general including the railway project. I don't know whether he asked Brooks to reconsider the refusal."
The U.S. has also effectively blocked a liaison office that South Korea wanted to open in Kaesong in North Korea this month by complaining that bringing equipment and materials across the border could violate UN sanctions.
A ministry official told reporters that the joint railroad survey would not violate sanctions. But a diplomatic source said, "Inter-Korean cooperation on the railway project has nothing to do with the sanctions if only people are involved, but the trains would carry a lot of banned items like diesel that are subject to sanctions, so the government should have checked more carefully."
Seoul will push ahead with the project after the North finishes celebrating its 70th founding anniversary on Sept. 9. Officials are already working on details, and the UNC could approve a fresh request, a UNC officer said.
The U.S. is ramping up pressure on North Korea because denuclearization talks have hit stalemate, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceling a planned visit to Pyongyang amid fears that he would leave empty-handed again.
Meanwhile, Seoul does not seem to have informed the UN Security Council's sanctions committee that it shipped 80 tons (approximately 600,000 barrels) of refined oil to Kaesong in June and July. Under the sanctions, supply of refined oil products to the North is restricted to 500,000 barrels a year, and member states must report any shipment they make.
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