SEOUL, June 4 (UPI) -- Inter-Korean relations remain on hold since the February summit between North Korea and the United States abruptly ended without an agreement, putting planned cross-border economic cooperation projects in limbo, South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said Tuesday.
"The outcome of the U.S.-DPRK summit in Hanoi gave us new challenges," Kim said at a press briefing, referring to North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
He said the Ministry of Unification is "exerting our utmost efforts" to help get dialogue back on track between Washington and Pyongyang, calling it a "priority" for his office.
Kim, who was appointed unification minister by President Moon Jae-in in April, told reporters he has had little communications with his North Korean counterparts. His only encounter has been a brief chat with North Korean staff at a joint liaison office in the northern border town of Kaesong, he said.
In the meantime, economic projects that have been heavily touted by the Moon administration as the centerpiece of his engagement policies with North Korea, such as linking road and rail systems between the two Koreas and reopening the shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex, have not moved forward.
A group of South Korean executives who had to abandon their assets at Kaesong are planning to visit the United States to meet with lawmakers next week.
Other efforts, including the recovery of remains of soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War inside the DMZ, are ongoing, Kim said, although he noted that "the level of cooperation has decreased and the [South Korean] Ministry of National Defense is currently conducting the operation."
The minister also touted the removal of guard posts and landmines in the DMZ and the creation of three "DMZ Peace Trails" for tourists in Goseong, Cheorwon and Paju as positive developments.
South Korea is going ahead with humanitarian aid projects for North Korea as well, with a pledged $8 million in aid to help North Korea's malnourished children and pregnant women on target to be delivered via the World Food Program and UNICEF.
But without relief from international economic sanctions, there is little hope of kickstarting what Moon has called the "peace economy on the Korean Peninsula."
Sanctions have remained a sticking point of nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang since the first meeting of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last June.
Their summit produced a declaration that said North Korea would work toward a "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," but lacked details or a timeline for carrying out the process.
Pyongyang is looking for relief of international sanctions in exchange for steps it has taken, such as dismantling a nuclear testing site, while Washington has continued to hold out for complete denuclearization first.
A second summit, held in February in Hanoi, Vietnam, concluded abruptly without an agreement. Trump has said he was open to meeting with Kim again, but in an April speech, the North Korean leader raised questions, saying that the United States "needs to put aside the current method of calculation and approach us with a new method of calculation."
The unification minister said Tuesday he believed the United States is open to easing its all-or-nothing approach on denuclearization and work toward a gradual, step-by-step implementation.
"I think both the governments of the South Korea and the United States believe that it is important for us to have a comprehensive agreement but a gradual implementation process," Kim Yeon-chul said.
"It is important for us to take a simultaneous approach with denuclearization and investments in [economic] projects, rather than having denuclearization prior to every project."
When the United States and North Korea come back to the negotiating table, South Korea "might be able to move on to the next level of cooperation between two Koreas," he added.
"So our priority at this point is to make sure that the resumption of dialogue takes place between the North Koreans and the Americans."