South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has been blasted and praised for her comments about sanctions and North Korea. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen
South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has been blasted and praised for her comments about sanctions and North Korea. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen

It has always been a delicate balancing act, but a policy gap – the much feared “wedge” – now appears to be widening between South Korea and the United States over the issue of North Korean sanctions.

For decades, South Korea has been united with the United States against North Korea. There has always existed the possibility that the South will one day turn away from its political and military ally in order to embrace its estranged brother nation in the north.

Now, with inter-Korean tensions easing far more rapidly than North Korea-US strains, that possibility is looking more likely.

In a range of trial balloons released over the last week, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has raised the possibility of lifting bilateral sanctions against North Korea, while winning waivers on international sanctions. Her latest statement, made at the Korean National Assembly, appeared to be a bridge too far for Washington.

On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump, when asked whether South Korea would lift sanctions, said: “They won’t do it without our approval. They do nothing without our approval.”

That presidential broadside may appear to stamp upon Seoul’s sovereignty. But given the apparent pushback against North Korean engagement in Washington’s defense, foreign policy and intelligence communities, Seoul’s Moon Jae-in administration has little choice but to continue championing Trump.

The president may be the only member of his administration who believes that ties with North Korea – a foreign policy black hole – can improve.

And while Trump huffs and puffs, Kang’s moves may win approval elsewhere. On the same day that Kang spoke and Trump issued his brow-beating, China, North Korea and Russia called for eased sanctions.

Seoul seeks sanctions waivers

While Washington holds a veto on the UN Security Council – meaning it can prevent motions to alter international sanctions – it has no power over Seoul’s policies, which include a range of bilateral sanctions against North Korea.

On Wednesday, during a National Assembly audit of her ministry, Kang raised the possibility of lifting those sanctions. “A review is underway,” she said in the National Assembly, according to Yonhap newswire. “It’s an important executive order. (We) have constantly reviewed it,” she added. “As there are many (bilateral) sanctions overlapping the UN ones, it won’t necessarily mean the substantive lifting (of sanctions on the North).”

Though she clarified that there was no “pan-governmental” discussion on the issue yet underway, she added: “I think it’s a matter to be reviewed in comprehensive consideration of South-North relations.”

The sanctions were emplaced in 2010, following the sinking of a South Korean corvette in the Yellow Sea, in what the South insists was a Northern torpedo attack. North Korea denied it. The sanctions severed all trade and investment ties with North Korea.

However, if they were lifted, by allowing cross-border barter trade – in which goods, but no actual currency crosses borders – North-South trade could feasibly resume without violating international sanctions.

North Korean exports that were former hits in the South include fresh seafood, wild vegetables, some alcohol and even sand – used by the South Korean construction industry for concrete.

Moreover, in prior comments, Kang had also raised the possibility of exemptions from international sanctions.

In an interview granted to the Washington Post on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York last month, Kang said: “What we need to proceed with the South-North cooperation project as identified in the Panmunjom Declaration [issued after the April inter-Korean summit] means that sometimes we may need waivers on the sanctions, but getting waivers is very different from seeking a weakening of the sanctions regime.”

And last Saturday, she told reporters in Seoul, according to Bloomberg: “The South Korean government’s position on sanction exemptions is that we will request exemptions of sanctions to pursue various collaboration projects between North and South Korea.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk later clarified, saying the government would seek sanction exemptions “in the event they are necessary,” citing previous sanction exemptions that enabled the invitation of North Koreans to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics early this year, Bloomberg reported.

Considerable exemptions would almost certainly be necessary if the North and South are to carry out their flagship cross-border project: The re-linking of their rail nets. The two Koreas have agreed to begin work on that by the end of this year, and the equipment and technology that would cross the border would almost certainly require UN Security Council permissions.

Earlier this year, in an unusual and still-murky episode, the UN Command in South Korea – headed by a US general – prevented a South Korean train from crossing the border into North Korea. The train had Seoul governmental officials on board, reportedly planning an exploratory mission in advance of the rail re-linking project.

Kang’s remarks drew the ire not only of Trump, but also Korea’s right wing.

“Kang flubs it,” the conservative Joongang Daily editorialized. “We are flabbergasted … We can’t violate international sanctions. Sanctions are the very leverage we have to denuclearize the North.”

But it seems unlikely that Kang flubbed it, one expert said. Her comments more likely reflect the opinions of an administration frustrated with Washington.

“Kang is biting the bullet, and indicating to North Korea that South Korea is trying its best to ease sanctions,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea researcher at the Asan Institute in Seoul. “This indicates that Seoul is unhappy with the Americans: If Kang made a faux pas, she would be fired.”

Opposed to sanctions

Kang’s remarks generated smiles in other quarters.

On Wednesday, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry released a statement reading: “It is time to start considering the adjustment of the UN Security Council’s sanctions regime against [North Korea]. The three parties also oppose unilateral sanctions.”

The statement following a two-day meeting in Moscow between the deputy foreign ministers of China, North Korea and Russia, who all favor a phased, quid-pro-quo process in which Pyongyang is rewarded by eased sanctions as it takes steps on denuclearization.

The statement contradicts the “maximum pressure” strategy pursued by Washington and enthusiastically endorsed by Tokyo, but which Seoul now appears to be wavering on: It calls for sanctions to remain in place until denuclearization is complete.

While some in the US administration have indicated that denuclearization could be completed within the lifespan of the Trump administration, some experts say it could take more than a decade – assuming it is faithfully implemented, which many doubt.

In her remarks to the Washington Post, Kang also differed with the US view on the denuclearization process.

She suggested that US demands for a full disclosure of North Korean nuclear assets – which Pyongyang has balked at providing – is a poor path to follow, citing how the last time a similar process took place, it disintegrated in 2008 over the issue of related verification protocols.

She suggested instead the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex – an idea North Korea has put forward, in return for vague, reciprocal US steps. Washington has not yet reacted to that suggestion and remains mum on Pyongyang’s repeated demands for a peace treaty to end the Korean War and for upgraded bilateral relations.

The denuclearization process, which looked so promising when Kim and Trump met in Singapore in June, is now looking stillborn. Visits to Pyongyang by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other contacts with North Korean officials, have made little apparent leeway regarding how denuclearization should proceed.

Some clarity may transpire when Kim and Trump meet for their second summit, at a date and location yet to be decided, after the US mid-term elections on November 6.

Meanwhile, despite Trump’s undiplomatic language, the Moon government is in a bind. “It is in the interest of the South Korean government to retain good relations with Trump, as the only person in his administration who is truly in favor of good relations with North Korea is Trump himself,” said Asan Institute’s Go. “In that sense, President Moon considers Trump an ally.”

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