South Korea said some North Korean officials returned to an inter-Korean liaison office on Monday, three days after the North abruptly withdrew its entire staff citing unspecified instructions from “higher-level authorities,” TIME informs.
Pyongyang’s decision to withdraw its staff on Friday came a week after its vice foreign minister threatened to pull out of nuclear negotiations with the United States following the collapse of a nuclear summit last month between leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump in Vietnam.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, said in a statement that four to five North Korean officials showed up for work Monday at the liaison office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and told South Korean officials they came to work their usual shifts.
Seoul said the North had still not provided a clear explanation as to why it withdrew staff from the office. It expressed hope that even the partial return of North Korean personnel would allow the office to serve its “essential function.” The North reportedly had sent about 10 workers each working day to the office since it opened last September as part of a slew of reconciliation steps between the rivals agreed to by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“We plan to continue operating the inter-Korean liaison office like we did in normal times,” said Baik Tae-hyun, the ministry’s spokesman.
The Koreas in past months have also dismantled some of their front-line guard posts, halted military exercises across their border and vowed to resume inter-Korean economic projects when possible, voicing optimism that international sanctions could end, allowing such projects.
Washington and Pyongyang have struggled with the sequencing of North Korea’s nuclear disarmament and the removal of sanctions, and blamed each other for the collapse of last month’s meeting in Hanoi, TIME adds.
The liaison office between the Koreas is the first since the Korean Peninsula was split into a U.S.-backed capitalistic South and a Soviet-supported socialist North in 1945. The rivals previously used telephone and fax-like communication channels that were often shut down in times of high tensions.
Analysts reckoned the continued presence of North Koreans at the liaison office probably reflected Pyongyang’s satisfaction over Trump’s decision to hold off on the imposition of more sanctions, Reuters/Euronews adds. They said the threatened withdrawal of staff appeared to have been calculated to pressure South Korea into persuading the United States to soft-pedal on sanctions.