South Korean Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (L) visits Pyongyang, North Korea, in September. File Pool Photo by Pyongyang Press Corps/EPA-EFE
SEOUL, April 5 (UPI) -- The city of Seoul is working on a strategy to build inter-Korea cooperation in anticipation of the eventual withdrawal of North Korea sanctions, urban policymakers said Friday.
Shim Hyeok-bo, the team leader of an inter-Korea exchange and cooperation policy committee for the world's fifth-largest city, said various programs are being planned with the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, in mind.
Potential projects are not being pursued with disregard for sanctions, however, he added.
"When we made the plans, we accounted for sanctions," Shim told UPI. "We weren't approaching cooperation with the North from the perspective of, you know, 'Let's violate sanctions'."
Shim, speaking at a forum at the University of North Korean Studies, also said the city is at the "planning stages," but will "expand" if economic embargoes against Pyongyang for nuclear weapons proliferation are lifted in the future.
The topic of South Korean cooperation with the North is a delicate matter. In December, a Seoul city committee said perception of too much funding for North Korea-related projects, including a potentially co-hosted 2032 Summer Olympics, raises public concern that South Korea pours money into the North without a guarantee of returns, other than a reasonable level of stability marked by reduced provocations.
In the weeks between the collapsed Hanoi summit between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, and the upcoming summit in Washington between Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, South Korean politicians, including progressive Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, could be weighing their options.
The breakdown of talks between Trump and Kim is being perceived as a setback in many quarters, but Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said a "road map," while necessary for inter-Korea cooperation, has to be revised constantly.
Lee, an expert on North Korean society, also said the plans should stay realistic.
"If North Korea doesn't agree [to projects], then nothing comes to fruition," Lee said at the forum. "That is the reality."
Shim said the city of Seoul has been pushing for civic-led inter-Korea exchange since 1999. From 1999 to 2006, Seoul and Pyongyang carried out an exchange of zoo animals, and from 2006 to 2009 Seoul provided medical assistance to the Pyongyang Choson Oncology Research Institute.
Park also hosted the North Korean delegation for a cultural event during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and met with Kim Jong Un as a member of the South Korean delegation that traveled to Pyongyang last September. Park later said Kim expressed interest in the South Korean mayor's proposal to improve the water quality of the Taedong River in the North Korean capital.
The mayor is taking initiative at a time when provincial and city governments are moving toward a kind of hyper-localization of inter-Korea exchange, and popular editorials are suggesting political summits, merely involving heads of government, aren't enough to make engagement work.
Eunpyeong-gu, one of the 25 districts of Seoul, has been at the forefront of a "unification movement," Lee said Friday. Its district planners have argued the area's northernmost location in the capital could make it a major hub if the inter-Korea Gyeongui Line is reconnected in the future.
But as dozens of plans are being discussed enthusiastically in the South, North Korea has yet to provide a public response to the proposals. Kim may have shown interest in the Taedong River project Park suggested, but North Korea's state media has yet to commend South Korean initiatives, including the city of Seoul's, that could potentially include building an online "e-government" for Pyongyang, and setting up real-time bus arrival information displays in the North Korean capital.
Choe Seon-gyeong, a researcher at the university, said North Korea has been consistent in its messaging about building a "socialist civilization."
Kim's projects, like the new residences on Ryomyong Street, are almost exclusively focused on the city of Pyongyang, she said at the forum on Friday.