Seoul, South Korea – South Korea resumed its proposal to abolish some of its unilateral sanctions against North Korea after President Donald Trump's firm declaration that Seoul could not "do anything" without approval of Washington.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Wednesday that Seoul was considering the possibility of taking removal measures after a fatal attack in 2010 that killed 46 South Korean seamen. He mentioned the intention to create more diplomatic momentum for talks on North Korea's nuclear program. South Korean conservatives also reacted in anger, and Kang's ministry downplayed his comments later, stating in a statement that the government has not yet launched a "complete" review of sanctions, which means that no decision was forthcoming.
The Minister of Unification, Cho Myoung-gyon, said yesterday in a parliamentary control that the removal of sanctions was not seriously considered and that doing so would have been difficult, unless North Korea recognized the responsibility of the 2010 attack. North Korea strongly denied that it sank the Cheonan warship.
Trump's answer when asked about Kang's comments implied friction among allies on the pace of inter-Korean engagement in Washington's concerns about Pyongyang being late for his alleged promise to denuclearize.
"They will not do it without our approval," Trump said. "They do nothing without our approval".
Trump encouraged US allies to maintain sanctions on North Korea until it deconstructs as part of what its administration has called a "maximum pressure" campaign against the Kim Jong Un government.
South Korea's president Moon Jae-in remained mostly firm on sanctions, despite active involvement with North Korea and the possibility of huge investments and joint economic projects in exchange for the renunciation of the North of its nuclear weapons.
A move by South Korea to lift some of its sanctions would have limited effect as international sanctions led by the United States remain in place. But it is clear that Seoul is preparing to restart joint economic projects if major nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea are starting to yield results.
South Korea effectively closed all cross-border economic cooperation and banned North Korea from using the South Korean navigation routes in the 2010 sanctions. A jointly operated industrial park in the city of Kaesong, bordering North Korea, it was not closed until 2016 in response to a North Korean nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch.
During Moon's visit to Pyongyang last month, he and leader Kim Jong Un agreed to normalize operations in the Kaesong factory park and resume joint tours in North Korea whenever possible, giving voice to optimism that international sanctions could put an end to these projects.
The North and South also announced measures to reduce conventional military threats, such as the creation of buffer zones along their land and sea borders and a no-fly zone over the border. The North also said it would dismantle its main nuclear facility at Nyongbyon if the United States adopted unspecified corresponding measures.
Washington, however, insisted that efforts to improve relations between the Koreas should go hand in hand with efforts to denuclearize the North.
Kang said Wednesday that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed regret for Korea's military agreement. Kang was not specific, but his comments could fuel speculation. Washington was not fully on board before Seoul signed the agreement.
Despite three summits with Moon and one with Trump this year, Kim still has to provide a convincing signal that he is ready to eliminate his nuclear weapons.
Despite the current climate of detente and negotiation between the Koreas, the removal of sanctions will be a difficult decision for the Seoul government.
The South Koreans are deeply divided according to ideological lines and many people still have a deep anger at the attack of North Korea in 1950 that started the Korean War. Since then there has been an occasional blood spill – the 2010 warship attack was followed months after the North Korean bombing of a South Korean border island that killed four houses and gutted.
Kang stressed that many parts of the 2010 South Korean sanctions now duplicate with UN sanctions that have been considerably strengthened after 2016, when the North began to accelerate nuclear and missile tests. He also described Seoul's unilateral sanctions as a key obstacle in restarting South Korean tourism at the Northern Diamond Mountain resort, suspended in 2008 following the death of a South Korean woman.
But the removal of these sanctions would not be enough to resume the tour, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean expert at the Dongguk University of Seoul and a political adviser to Moon. While the U.N. sanctions against North Korea do not prohibit tourism, impose severe restrictions on bulk cash transfers, he said. However, the lifting of sanctions in 2010 could offer at least some tangible benefits to the North.
"For North Korea, the most significant result of the revocation of the May 24 measures would be that its ships will be able to travel back across the Jeju Strait," Koh said, referring to the waters between South Korea and the southern island of Jeju. "This will save them time and fuel".
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