|Unification Minister Lee In-young speaks during a press conference at the Office of the Inter-Korean Dialogue in Seoul, Thursday. Yonhap|
By Kang Seung-woo
Unification Minister Lee In-young said Thursday that the first half of the year would be the most opportune time to initiate progress in President Moon Jae-in's stalled Korean Peninsula peace process, saying the new American administration needs to engage North Korea as early as possible.
In addition, the minister expected the U.S. policy review on the North Korean regime will recommend adopting a synchronized and phased approach to eliminating Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, adding that the United States could take a flexible stance on international sanctions following the totalitarian state's moves toward denuclearization.
"The government will make efforts to encourage the U.S. to engage North Korea at an early stage in a bid to normalize the Korean Peninsula peace process and achieve tangible results," Lee said during a press conference at the Office for Inter-Korean Dialogue in Seoul.
"As the U.S. policy review of North Korea is expected to be completed, which will lift uncertainty, I believe that the first half will be the best opportunity and perfect time for South and North Korea and the U.S. to move together toward Korean Peninsula peace progress," he said, adding there could be variables in the latter half of the year such as South Korean politics as the country enters its next presidential election race.
His remarks come as inter-Korean ties have been in deadlock since the Hanoi summit between the U.S. and North Korea ended without a deal in February 2019. Although Tuesday marked the third anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, April 27, 2018, the two sides remained low-key in their celebrations.
In that respect, Lee said the planned summit between President Moon and U.S. President Joe Biden next month would carry weight.
"I hope the summit will serve as momentum to advance the resumption of the peace initiative based on strategic coordination between South Korea and the U.S. on North Korea policy," Lee said.
The minister also expressed his hopes that the Biden administration will respect what the South Korean government's peace initiative has brought about so far and adopt it in its North Korea policy review.
"It is important for the U.S. government to respect the achievements of the peace process from a perspective of allies," he said.
Currently, North Korea has not responded to calls for talks from Washington as well as Seoul, raising speculation that the Kim regime may take action after the Biden administration's North Korean policy review is completed.
Lee echoed the view, saying any action from the North is likely to come after seeing the U.S. policy and the outcome of next month's summit between South Korea and the U.S., along with the coronavirus situation.
However, Lee also said South Korea cannot sit back, just waiting for the U.S. policy review.
"In order to normalize the inter-Korean ties, government-level efforts will be made in the first half of the year," the minister said, adding that Seoul is ready to sit down with the North anytime, anywhere and talk about anything.
The U.S. is now in the final stage of its North Korea policy review and the minster believes Washington will take the path of corresponding measures to the North's denuclearization rather than demanding that it dismantle its nuclear weapons program before receiving economic rewards.
He also vowed to continue efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea, saying that cooperation in such areas between the two Koreas could help create an atmosphere conducive to building peace and resuming denuclearization talks. The North, however, has not responded to the South's offer of assistance so far.