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Seoul Criticizes US Ambassador's 'Very Inappropriate' Comments on N Korea Tourism

FILE - People watch a television news screen showing U.S. President Donald Trump, South Korean Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the DMZ, at a railway station in Seoul, June 30, 2019.

South Korea pushed back firmly Friday on comments by U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris, who called on Seoul to consult with Washington about the South's attempt to resume individual tourism to North Korea.

Harris said Thursday that South Korea should run the plan through a joint working group to "avoid a misunderstanding later that could trigger sanctions."

An official with South Korea's presidential office called those remarks "very inappropriate," while stressing Seoul continues to coordinate with Washington.

"The issue of [inter-Korean] cooperation is a matter for our government to decide," the official said.

FILE - Retired Adm. Harry Harris, currently the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, attends a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 2019.
FILE - Retired Adm. Harry Harris, currently the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, attends a ceremony at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 2019.

South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, refused to directly respond to Harris' comments, but a spokesperson said the country's policy regarding North Korea "falls under our sovereignty."

U.S.-South Korea relations have already been strained by U.S. President Donald Trump's demand that Seoul pay substantially more of the cost of the U.S. military presence here.

The current military cost-sharing deal expired at the end of the year. A sixth round of talks ended this week without a breakthrough and U.S. officials have warned "residual funds" being used to cover the gap are running out.

The issue has created unusual friction in a nearly 70-year-old alliance that both sides regularly portray as "ironclad."

Inter-Korean ties

Despite a stalemate in U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks and the consequent retention of sanctions that have prevented implementation of most aspects of inter-Korean agreements, the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said it is looking for ways to independently improve inter-Korean ties. North Korea has rejected the efforts.

Harris said he thinks Moon's "continued optimism is encouraging," adding that it is not Washington's job to approve South Korea's decisions.

"I think his optimism creates hope, and that's a positive thing," Harris said Thursday. "But with regard to acting on that optimism, I have said that things should be done in consultation with the United States."

Sanctions are just some of the hurdles that South Korea's plans for tourism must clear. Another obstacle is North Korea.

"Even if South Korea did attempt to restart tours, North Korea won't accept the proposal right now," said Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at South Korea's Handong Global University. "This effort is one-sided for the time being."

North Korea last year ruled out any further dialogue with the South, accusing Seoul of prioritizing its relationship with Washington over Pyongyang.