North and South Korea have opened a liaison office on the North’s side of the heavily militarised border to facilitate better communication and exchanges ahead of their leaders’ summit in Pyongyang next week.
Friday’s opening of the office at the North Korean border town of Kaesong is the latest in a series of reconciliatory steps the Koreas have taken this year.
The office is the first of its kind since the two countries were divided at the end of World War II in 1945.
The Koreas so far have been using telephone and fax-like communication channels when they want to arrange talks and exchange messages. But those channels have been often suspended when tensions rose over North Korea’s nuclear programme.
“We’ll sit face to face, exchange our thoughts fast and accurately and put our heads together to resolve difficult matters,” said South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon in an opening ceremony, adding that the office will become the “cradle of Korean co-prosperity”.
Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, said during the ceremony that the office would help the Koreas have “candid conversations” and further build up their ties, according to South Korean media pool reports from the site.
About 15 to 20 South Korean officials will work at the office, sleep at a nearby lodging facility in Kaesong during the weekdays and take turns staffing the office on weekends.
They will deal with an equal number of North Korean officials stationed at the office to discuss various inter-Korean issues, exchange messages from their capitals and facilitate civilian exchange programmes, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
The office will be co-headed by Vice South Korean Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung and a deputy head of Ri’s committee. They will hold an official meeting once a week, a ministry statement said.
Kaesong is where the Koreas’ now-stalled jointly-run factory complex is located.
The office is at the site of the Kaesong industrial complex, where for about a decade, South Korean companies ran production lines staffed by North Korean workers at the industrial park.
The park, once the most striking symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, has been closed since February 2016 when tension on the peninsula spiked after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test.
The liaison office’s opening came before South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meet for the third time this year next week to discuss denuclearisation of the peninsula and other issues.