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US boosts momentum for nuclear talks through sanctions exemption

Experts divided over whether sanctions exemption will raise prospects of denuclearization talks between North Korea and the US

The US decision to grant an exemption to UN sanctions for a joint study on modernizing and reconnecting inter-Korean railways hinted at what the future holds for North Korea should it take steps to denuclearize, experts said Sunday.

South Korea received a sanctions exemption from the United Nations Security Council, allowing the South to bring fuel and other equipment into the North for a joint survey of inter-Korean railroads, according to the Foreign Ministry.

South Korea also secured support from the US through bilateral consultations to exempt the project from Washington’s own sanctions against Pyongyang, the ministry said.

Seoul is expected to begin the on-site study on connecting cross-border railways -- the Gyeongui Line and Donghae Line -- on the North Korean side as early as this week. It aims to complete the survey and hold a groundbreaking ceremony by the end of the year in an effort to implement the key points in the agreement signed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the April 27 summit.

“The ground-breaking ceremony (for connecting inter-Korean railways) stipulated in the Pyongyang Declaration will be possible within this year,” presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok said Sunday on his Facebook page.
Im also expressed hope that the pace of both the railway project and denuclearization will pick up so that Koreans from both sides of the DMZ can travel to Beijing by train to attend the 2022 Winter Olympics.

However, the sanctions exemption only covers the field study, which means it will not enable the Koreas to reconnect railways and roads disconnected during the 1950-53 Korean War. South Korea will have to seek further sanctions exemptions to realize those goals. 

South Korea initially hoped to start the joint study in October and hold the groundbreaking ceremony by early December. But those steps were delayed amid Washington’s concerns that they might violate UN sanctions, which limit shipments of fuel and other goods to the North. The allies launched a working group last week to better coordinate their North Korea policy. 

It is the first time that the UNSC has granted any exemptions to sanctions for the inter-Korean project, which could lead to broader economic cooperation between the Koreas.

Previously, it exempted North Korean officials -- including North Korea’s No. 2 man, Kim Yong-chol -- from sanctions against the backdrop of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and a historic North Korea-US summit, as part of efforts to support the reconciliatory spirit on the Korean Peninsula. 

The exemption is seen as a goodwill gesture on the part of the US, which hopes to push forward stalled denuclearization talks with North Korea and to bring about a change in the North’s lukewarm attitude toward denuclearization, experts said.

Hong Min, research fellow at the Korean Institute for National Unification, said Pyongyang will likely respond positively to Washington’s gesture and the high-level meeting between the countries could be held soon. 

A meeting between Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Yong-chol, set for earlier this month has been postponed. North Korea has yet to respond to the US request to reschedule the high-level meeting, according to diplomatic sources here.

“The sanctions exemption for the survey is meant to signal that partial lifting of sanctions on North Korea and implementation of inter-Korean projects are possible when the South coordinates with the US,” Hong said.

“I think the exemption greatly raised a possibility for a high-level meeting between North Korea and the US in the near future. If held, I think it will happen this week, given US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s political schedule,” he said.

Seoul was also upbeat about the sanctions exemption, though it has said the full-fledged railway project would only go ahead after sanctions against the North are lifted. 

“The sanctions exemption has significant implications in that the project gained recognition and support from the US and the international society,” presidential spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom said on Saturday, adding that it takes inter-Korean cooperation to a “new level.”

South Korea has been eager to improve relations with North Korea, which it believes could encourage North Korea to accelerate denuclearization, while Washington has been worried about its ally moving too quickly with the North without progress on denuclearization. 

However, other experts said that the sanctions exemption would not likely improve the prospects of North Korea-US denuclearization talks.

“Prospects for broader economic cooperation between the Koreas are still tied to progress in the denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“The exemption falls short of expectations of North Korea, which has been calling for easing of sanctions for it to take denuclearization steps,” Go said. “I don’t think it will be enough to encourage the North to give a concession, meaning the stalemate in denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea is likely to continue for now.”

North Korea has increasingly complained about the US’ unwillingness to ease sanctions against the reclusive regime. But the US has said the sanctions against the North will remain in place until the North completely denuclearizes.

“I think the US wanted to send a message to North Korea that sanctions relief could be discussed in accordance with real progress on the North’s denuclearization,” said Woo Jung-yeop, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute.

“It is a positive gesture, but given their differences on who should act first, I don’t think it could be a breakthrough that can end the deadlock in the denuclearization negotiations between North Korea and the US,” Woo said.
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