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US official seeks cooperation from local businesses on sanctions

A US official on Thursday requested cooperation from South Korean businesspeople seeking to resume inter-Korean projects amid a lack of progress on the North’s denuclearization, at a meeting with those involved in cross-border economic projects, according to a participant of the meeting.

Mark Lambert, the US State Department’s Korea desk director and acting deputy assistant secretary, had a one-hour roundtable meeting with about a dozen South Koreans who had done business with North Korea at the US Embassy in Seoul.

“As there is little progress on North Korea’s denuclearization, the official requested South Korean businesspeople not to violate the US unilateral sanctions or the United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea,” one of the participants told The Korea Herald.

“His point was ... if we hastily resume engagement with North Korea, we could be punished for violations of sanctions,” said the source, who had run a business at the now-shuttered joint Kaesong industrial park. 

Mark Lambert (Yonhap)
Mark Lambert (Yonhap)

The Korea desk director then asked the attendees to consult with the South Korean government about what may or may not constitute sanctions violations, the source said, as the US closely coordinates with Seoul. “He also said that things could go in a positive direction in tandem with progress on North Korea’s denuclearization,” the source added.

Businesspeople who were invited to the meeting also included those who had run a tourism program at Kumgangsan in North Korea, as well as South Korean mobile carrier KT and state-run railway operator Korail, which led cross-border infrastructure projects.

The participants talked about difficulties in sending items to North Korea necessary to set up a liaison office in Kaesong due to the UN sanctions, trouble related to long-stalled tourism programs at Kumgangsan in North Korea and the need to inspect facilities at the Kaesong industrial park, the source said.

Lambert said it was not at his discretion to answer those questions, according to the source.

His visit comes amid South Korea’s diplomatic efforts to improve inter-Korean relations and cross-border exchanges, as North Korea has been negotiating with the US over its nuclear weapons program.

His meeting with South Korean businesspeople hoping to resume inter-Korean projects appears to be aimed at warning against international sanctions violations. The US and South Korea, along with the international community, are enforcing economic sanctions on the North to cut off funds for nuclear weapons and missile development.

This comes amid reports that two ships carried North Korean coal to South Korean ports in October last year in violation of United Nations sanctions and avoided punishment. The South Korean government said it is still investigating the case.

Separately, South Korea has requested from the UN Security Council an exception to sanctions on North Korea as part of efforts to promote inter-Korean exchanges. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha stressed the need for a partial sanctions lift for cross-border projects.

On Thursday, Lambert, who is part of the US’ working group to follow up on denuclearization talks with North Korea, met Foreign Ministry officials in charge of North American affairs and the North Korean nuclear issue to discuss North Korea and other issues, according to the Foreign Ministry.

His two-day trip is “part of strategic communication that has been made between South Korea and the United States on various levels for complete denuclearization and the establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula,” the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Noh Kyu-duk said at a press briefing Thursday. 

By Ock Hyun-ju (