• Kyodo

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Japan would be an “important partner” in South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s economic cooperation initiative with the North if denuclearization becomes a reality on the divided Korean Peninsula, South Korea’s unification minister said.

Cho Myoung-gyon, a key player in the negotiations with Pyongyang, also said in an interview Friday that allowing North Korea to normalize diplomatic ties with Japan and the United States would provide “stable footing” for denuclearization to proceed.

It was the first time Cho had granted an interview to foreign media since the April 27 inter-Korean summit between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the truce village of Panmunjom.

Cho, who is leading the negotiations with the North, attended the historic summit, where Moon and Kim agreed to pursue “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula and strive to formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in an armistice.

The economic cooperation initiative includes three “belts”: an energy and resource belt connecting the east coast of the Korean Peninsula with the Russian Far East, a transportation and logistics belt between the west coast and China, and a cross-border tourism belt.

Moon inserted the initiative in his campaign platform before taking office in May 2017, but South Korea’s sanctions against the North for conducting banned nuclear weapons tests prevented it from taking shape.

According to Cho, Moon attempted to explain the initiative to Kim at the summit using PowerPoint slides, but due to lack of time, Moon gave him a USB drive containing the data instead.

Pyongyang showed interest in linking trains and roads with the South, Cho said.

As for the North’s sudden cancellation of inter-Korean ministerial talks on Wednesday, Cho said the South will try to arrange their resumption after the joint U.S.-South Korean military drills end on May 25.

Having criticized the military exercises for undermining the thaw on the Korean Peninsula, the North has suspended talks with the South.

“The denuclearization issue and South-North relations are like the two wheels of a cart, and a cart will not move forward with only one wheel,” Cho said. “I believe North Korea will make a right judgment.”

If inter-Korean talks resume, issues unaffected by economic sanctions “will be promoted soon,” Cho said, citing reunions between war-torn families, the compilation of a dictionary to clarify differences in the two Korean dialects, and the implementation of measures to ease tensions in the 4-km-wide, 250-km-long Demilitarized Zone dividing the Koreas.

Cho, meanwhile, emphasized that he recognizes Japan is an “important neighboring country,” with which South Korea should continue to work together not only in the economic sphere, but also in the security, peace and social fields.

“It is a common goal of Japan, South Korea and surrounding countries to eliminate the situation where North Korea’s missiles fly over Japan,” Cho said.

In consideration of North Korea’s stance, “the process of cooperating to resolve problems is important,” instead of unilaterally putting pressure on Pyongyang, the minister added.

Regarding the abductions of Japanese by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, Cho said Moon raised the issue at the summit with Kim, but declined to comment on how North Korea responded.

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