S. Korean business leaders meet N. Korean deputy PM

September 18, 2018

SEOUL/PYONGYANG, Sept. 18 (Joint Press Corps-Yonhap) — Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong and other South Korean business leaders met with North Korea’s deputy prime minister in Pyongyang on Tuesday, underscoring the commitment by the divided Koreas to boosting their economic cooperation.

The rare meeting came as South Korean President Moon Jae-in held summit talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, their third meeting since the liberal president took office in Seoul in 2017 and begin pursuing an engagement policy toward North Korea.

Lee — who controls South Korea’s largest family-controlled conglomerate Samsung Group — said he felt Korea is one nation as he met with North Koreans on his first trip to North Korea.

Lee said he hopes the meeting will serve as an occasion to get to know each other and build confidence during the meeting with North Korean Deputy Prime Minister Ri Ryong-nam at the People’s Palace of Culture.

Ri asked Lee to become someone famous for working for peace and prosperity as well as unification between the two Koreas, saying Lee is already a very famous person.

Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong (R) shakes hands with North Korean Deputy Prime Minister Ri Ryong-nam at the People's Palace of Culture on Sept. 18, 2018. (Yonhap)

Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong (R) shakes hands with North Korean Deputy Prime Minister Ri Ryong-nam at the People’s Palace of Culture on Sept. 18, 2018. (Yonhap)

Lee is the de facto leader of Samsung Group, whose flagship unit is Samsung Electronics Co., the maker of Galaxy smartphones.

Participants at the meeting included SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won; LG Group Chairman Koo Kwang-mo; Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun; and Kim Yong-hwan, vice president of Hyundai Motor Group.

The high-profile trips by the South Korean business executives illustrated South Korea’s thinly veiled attempts to lay groundwork to give a boost to inter-Korean economic cooperation.

North Korea has been under tightened U.N. sanctions, as well as separate U.S. sanctions, over its nuclear tests and its long-range rocket launches, measures that bar foreign investment in the isolated country.

The United States has said there will be no sanctions relief until Pyongyang has taken credible steps toward denuclearization.

Kim, vice president of Hyundai Motor Group, said he hopes that inter-Korean relations will quickly develop by removing political uncertainty.

Inter-Korean relations have often been affected by political ups and downs between the two Koreas. The 1950-53 Korean War ended with a cease-fire agreement, not a peace treaty, leaving South and North Korea technically at war.

Hyun expressed hope for the resumption of a long-stalled joint tour program at Mount Kumgang, a scenic mountain resort on the North’s east coast, saying her heart ached whenever relations between the two Koreas worsened.

Hyundai Asan, the inter-Korean business arm of Hyundai Group, was a key partner in the tour program as well as a stalled joint factory park in North Korea’s border city of Kaesong.

The tour program — launched in 1998 — had been a symbol of reconciliation between the two divided countries, as well as a key cash cow for the North.

Last month, the mountain resort served as a venue for temporary reunions of hundreds of families in South and North Korea separated following the Korean War.

South Korea has suspended tours since July 2008 after a South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard near the resort.