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North Korean officials on Friday abruptly pulled out of an inter-Korean liaison office in another sign that warming relations between the two Koreas are turning frosty as nuclear talks stagnate.
The decision to withdraw officials from the office comes shortly after the U.S. imposed fresh sanctions against two Chinese companies trading with North Korea. While North Korea’s decision to exit has not been directly tied to the new sanctions, the move is seen by experts as an indication of Kim Jong Un’s disappointment with Seoul’s inability to get Washington to lift crippling economic sanctions against the country.
“The sudden decision by North Korea to remove its officials from the liaison office is no doubt aimed at the Moon Jae-in administration, which is keen to push peace talks forward,” John Hemmings, Asia Director at the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, told VICE News. “It’s really a less-than-subtle attempt to split Washington and Seoul over the added sanctions.”
The liaison office was opened to much fanfare last September in the North Korean border city of Kaesong and was designed to provide a way for officials on both sides to communicate regularly on a range of issues. It was hailed as a significant step forward in inter-Korean relations, allowing regular communication for the first time since the Korean War.
But, on Friday, North Korean officials "notified the South they are pulling out of the liaison office,” said South Korea's vice unification minister, Chun Hae Sung, and that the decision had been taken “in accordance with an order from an upper command,”
Chun said his officials would continue to staff the office. “We regret the North's decision. Though North Korea has pulled out, we will continue to work at the liaison office as usual.”
In recent months the atmosphere of hope for peace on the peninsula espoused by South Korean President Moon Jae over the last two years has soured somewhat, especially after the failed summit between Kim and Donald Trump in Hanoi last month.
At the summit officials were unable to agree on a deal on how to move forward on the denuclearization process, which led to Trump walking away from the negotiating table.
Since the summit, North Korea has once again begun ratcheting up its rhetoric towards Washington, telling Trump he threw away “a golden opportunity” in Vietnam. There have also been warning signs that North Korea could be restarting its missile testing program. And last week a senior North Korea official threatened to walk away from nuclear talks with the U.S. completely.
In the wake of the failed summit, South Korea has pledged to bring the two sides together to reach a compromise on denuclearization, but so far those plans have been rebuffed by Pyongyang.
Cover Image: Photo taken on Sept. 14, 2018 showing the opening ceremony for the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea. (Pool photo)(Kyodo via AP Images)