(ATTN: ADDS more Harris' remarks in paras 7-10 and 13-14)
SEOUL, Jan. 16 (Yonhap) -- South Korea should consult with the U.S. about its plans to engage with North Korea to avoid any "misunderstandings" that may trigger sanctions, the top U.S. envoy to Seoul said Thursday.
Ambassador Harry Harris made the remark as South Korea is pushing to expand inter-Korean exchanges to facilitate the stalled nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
President Moon Jae-in said earlier this week that individual tours to the North do not violate the U.N. sanctions and that it could eventually induce the North to return to dialogue and win international support for partial relief of sanctions.
"President Moon's continued optimism is encouraging," Harris was quoted by Reuters as saying to foreign journalists in Seoul. "But with regard to acting on that optimism, I have said that things should be done in consultation with the United States."
"In order to avoid a misunderstanding later that could trigger sanctions, it's better to run this through the Working Group," he said. The Working Group was set up in 2018 to coordinate North Korea-related issues.
Moon's remarks referred to the South Koreans' suspended tours to the North's Mount Kumgang on its east coast. Group tours to the scenic mountain were halted in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean guard.
While noting that tourism is not banned under the sanctions, Harris said problems can arise from such things as luggage items that visitors bring in with them, and what routes they take to travel to and back from the North, NK News reported.
Regarding the envoy's remarks, Seoul officials said they were no different from the allies' shared basic stance of keeping close consultations on North Korea issues.
"It appears that (he) was referring to the Working Group in a sense that we coordinate with the U.S. beforehand so as to take precautions against any unnecessary problems," a government official said.
South Korea has also stated its position that any potential problems associated with sanctions need to be discussed between the allies, another official said.
In response to Moon's pledge, the U.S. State Department has said the allies are committed to a unified response to North Korea and that all U.N. member states are required to implement the sanctions resolutions. It did not comment on whether individual tours to the North fall under the scope of sanctions.
Washington has been wary of allowing exceptions to the U.N. sanctions regime out of concern they could undermine its "maximum pressure" campaign to denuclearize Pyongyang.
Regarding the negotiations currently under way on sharing the cost of stationing U.S. troops in Seoul, Harris said Washington has made a compromise in its demands and that it was "waiting for the Korean side to do the same," according to AFP.
He confirmed that the two sides are "narrowing differences," although a gap remains.
Harris also said that the U.S. is using "residual funds" to minimize the impact from the Dec. 31 expiry of last year's deal on South Korean workers hired by the U.S. Forces Korea, and that they will be given a mandated furlough notice soon, according to Reuters.