SEOUL – North Korea on Friday abruptly withdrew its staff from an inter-Korean liaison office, Seoul officials said.
The development will likely put a damper on ties between the two Koreas and complicate global diplomacy on the North’s nuclear weapons program. Last month, the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Vietnam collapsed due to disputes over U.S.-led sanctions on the North.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said that North Korea informed South Korea of its decision during a meeting at the liaison office at the North Korean border town of Kaesong on Friday.
The North said it “is pulling out with instructions from the superior authority,” according to a Unification Ministry statement that didn’t say whether the withdrawal of staff will be temporary or permanent.
According to the South Korean statement, the North added that it “will not mind the South remaining in the office” and that it will notify the South about practical matters later. Chun Hae-sung, Seoul’s vice unification minister, told reporters that South Korea plans to continue to staff the Kaesong liaison office normally and that it expects the North will continue to allow the South Koreans to commute to the office. He said Seoul plans to staff the office with 25 people on Saturday and Sunday.
The South Korean statement called the North’s decision “regrettable.” It said South Korea urges the North to return its staff to the liaison office soon.
The liaison office opened last September as part of a flurry of reconciliation steps. It is the first such Korean office since the peninsula was split into a U.S.-backed, capitalistic South and a Soviet-supported, socialist North in 1945. The Koreas had previously used telephone and fax-like communication channels that were often shut down in times of high tension.
The town is where the Koreas’ now-stalled jointly run factory complex was located. It combined South Korean initiatives, capital and technology with North Korea’s cheap labor. Both Koreas want the U.S. to allow sanctions exemptions to allow the reopening of the factory park, which provided the North with much-needed foreign currency.
In the first punitive steps since the summit, the United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on two Chinese shipping companies it says helped North Korea evade sanctions over its nuclear weapons program,
The Treasury Department also issued an updated advisory that listed 67 vessels that it said had engaged in illicit transfers of refined petroleum with North Korean tankers or were believed to have exported North Korean coal.
The department identified the newly sanctioned firms as Dalian Haibo International Freight and Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding.
The U.S. sanctions prohibit U.S. dealings with the designated companies and freezes any assets they have in the United States.
“The United States and our like-minded partners remain committed to achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea and believe that the full implementation of North Korea-related U.N. Security Council resolutions is crucial to a successful outcome,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
“Treasury will continue to enforce our sanctions, and we are making it explicitly clear that shipping companies employing deceptive tactics to mask illicit trade with North Korea expose themselves to great risk,” he said.
The latest sanctions showed there is some “leakage” in North Korea sanctions enforcement by China, but it is mostly abiding by U.N. resolutions, a senior U.S. official told reporters.