South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Picture: REUTERS/KIM HONG-JI
South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Picture: REUTERS/KIM HONG-JI

Seoul — To avoid any “misunderstandings” that could trigger sanctions, South Korea should run any plans to engage with North Korea through a joint working group established with the US, the US ambassador to South Korea said on Thursday.

Ambassador Harry Harris said that he did not have an official US position on South Korean proposals such as re-opening individual tourism to its northern neighbour, but that it is important for Washington and Seoul to consult closely with each other.

As denuclearisation negotiations with North Korea stall, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said he would seek to move forward on inter-Korean projects as a way to improve ties with Pyongyang.

“To avoid a misunderstanding later that could trigger sanctions ... it’s better to run this through the working group,” Harris told reporters, referring to a group established in 2018 in a bid to bridge the two allies’ sometimes divergent approaches to North Korea.

“South Korea is a sovereign country and will do what it sees as best for its national interest,” Harris added, noting that it’s not the US’s place to approve South Korean decisions. But as South Korea’s biggest ally, Washington has an interest in inter-Korea co-operation and “fruitful” discussions with Seoul, he said.

“President Moon’s continued optimism is encouraging. I think his optimism creates hope, and that’s a positive thing,” Harris said. “But with regards to acting on that optimism, I have said that things should be done in consultation with the US.”

South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha discussed the projects in meetings with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in California this week. 

South Korea and the US are also seeking to narrow disagreements over how much Seoul contributes towards maintaining the roughly 28,500 US troops in the country. Harris declined to confirm reports that the US had demanded billions of dollars in additional funding, and acknowledged that a “gap remains” between the two positions.

The current cost-sharing agreement technically expired at the end of 2019, and the top US commander in South Korea is using “residual funds” to try to minimise the impact on about 10,000 South Koreans employed by the US military, Harris said, adding that a mandated furlough notice could soon be issued to those workers.

The latest round of negotiations ended on Wednesday without an agreement. “We did not reach a conclusion in Washington, so there will be further discussions,” he said. “[But] I think we’re narrowing the differences.”

South Korea’s purchase of US weapons is one factor being negotiated, but Harris said other issues such as a US request for South Korea to contribute troops to a Middle East maritime force have not been discussed in the cost-sharing negotiations.