[Editorial] Confusing signals

By Korea Herald

Seoul’s mediating role dimmed by latest steps taken by Washington and Pyongyang

  • Published : Mar 24, 2019 - 17:03
  • Updated : Mar 24, 2019 - 17:03

US President Donald Trump caused confusion Friday when he tweeted that “additional large-scale sanctions” against North Korea would be withdrawn.

His tweet was thought to be referring to sanctions announced by the Treasury Department a day earlier, which included blacklisting two China-based shipping companies suspected of illegally trading with the North.

But US media later quoted unnamed administration officials as saying that Trump was in fact ordering the cancellation of measures that were scheduled to be taken in the coming days.

The confusion seemed to reflect differences within the Trump administration on how the US should handle Pyongyang after Trump’s second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended without a deal.

On Thursday, the Treasury Department sanctioned two Chinese shipping companies for helping the North evade sanctions, showing its will to keep pressure on the recalcitrant regime until it dismantles its nuclear weapons program.

The Treasury Department also updated its advisory on North Korea’s illicit shipping practices to name 71 more vessels, in addition to the 24 listed last year, which are believed to be capable of engaging in or have already engaged in ship-to-ship transfers of fuel and other goods with the North. Among the newly listed vessels is one registered in South Korea.

“The United States and our like-minded partners remain committed to achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Just hours after the announcement, North Korea withdrew from the inter-Korean liaison office in its border city of Kaesong, which opened in September in accordance with an agreement that South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim reached at their first summit in April last year.

By pulling out of the liaison office, Pyongyang seemed to be putting pressure on Seoul to be more active in carrying forward inter-Korean economic cooperation. The measure was also seen as yet another message that the North might suspend nuclear negotiations with the US.

President Moon’s administration has reiterated it will push for cross-border projects within the framework of international sanctions, hoping such efforts will help bolster its role in facilitating stalled talks between the US and the North.

But it has found itself being squeezed between Washington’s drive to strengthen sanctions against the impoverished regime and Pyongyang’s dismissal of its mediating role.

Shortly before the pullout from the liaison office, a North Korean propaganda outlet said South Korean authorities are talking about implementing inter-Korean agreements, but in fact, are only reading the face of the US.

Trump’s tweet might be seen as reflecting his wish to avoid losing dialogue momentum by pushing sanctions too far and to reach a deal in a top-down manner through what he believes to be his good personal relationship with Kim.

It marked his first direct mention on the issue regarding the North since a North Korean official said eight days earlier Kim would soon decide whether to continue negotiations and maintain the moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.

Trump’s latest message might rekindle the Moon administration’s hope to play a meditating role between Washington and Pyongyang.

But Seoul should refrain from pushing for inter-Korean deals so far as to undermine international efforts to keep pressure on the North.

The alliance between South Korea and the US is more important than ever to achieve the goal of denuclearizing North Korea. Seoul needs to do more in persuading Pyongyang to denuclearize, making clear its limit in circumventing the international sanctions regime to expand inter-Korean cooperation.

For its part, North Korea should give up hopes it could secure significant sanctions relief without taking sincere steps toward complete denuclearization.

US national security adviser John Bolton said in a radio interview last week what Trump did in his talks with Kim was to hold the door open for North Korea to achieve a bright future but only on condition that “you’ve got to give up your weapons of mass destruction.”

Kim should expect Trump to continue to push for the denuclearization of his regime during their possible talks in the future, however wonder their chemistry is.

North Korea’s state media have repeatedly called on its people to step up efforts for self-reliance to get through what they call the “most severe hardship” facing the country. It would only aggravate its conditions if Pyongyang chooses to ratchet up tensions.