South Korea and the US are showing signs of friction over a possible mismatch in the progress of inter-Korean cooperation and the North Korean denuclearization.
The issue has drawn renewed attention since President Moon Jae-in said in his New Year’s press conference Tuesday last week Seoul should expand cross-border cooperation as a way to help facilitate stalled nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
While hoping to resume major inter-Korean projects, Moon suggested allowing South Koreans to make individual tours to the North as a possible route to circumvent international sanctions on Pyongyang.
On Thursday, US Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris told a group of foreign reporters here Seoul should hold prior consultations with Washington in its pursuit of permitting individual tours to the North.
Government officials and ruling party lawmakers came forward the following day to fire a broadside at the ambassador’s comments.
An aide to President Moon described the remarks as “very inappropriate,” saying inter-Korean cooperation is a matter to be decided by the South Korean government.
“Our policy with regard to North Korea comes under our sovereignty,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification, which handles inter-Korean affairs.
A senior lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Party said the ambassador’s comments were equivalent to interference in domestic affairs. Another ruling party legislator likened his attitude to that of a “governor general” in the colonial era, referring to Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945. He went on to say he thought Harris, a retired admiral, was “a little unfamiliar with diplomacy.”
There might have been a more euphemistic way the US envoy conveyed Washington’s concerns about what it saw as the Moon administration’s eagerness to enhance inter-Korean cooperation despite little progress in Pyongyang’s denuclearization.
But the reactions to his remarks appear oversensitive.
In principle, individual tours can be considered to be beyond the scope of US-led international sanctions against the North.
What Harris stressed was that Seoul ought to run the matter through a working-level consultative channel between the allies on North Korea affairs to avoid “misunderstandings” that might trigger sanctions mechanisms.
If a South Korean tourist hands over a large amount of hard currency to relatives or other residents in the North, it would violate a UN resolution banning the inflow of bulk cash into the communist state.
Looking for possible business opportunities during a tourist trip could go against another UN resolution that prevents joint projects with the North.
The international sanctions regime has made it impossible for the Moon administration to resume two major cross-border projects -- the Kaesong industrial park and group tours to Kumgangsan -- despite its eagerness to promote inter-Korean cooperation.
Pyongyang’s frustration with Seoul’s failure to restart the lucrative projects has led it to ridicule Seoul’s efforts to play a mediator’s role between the US and the North.
Officials in the Moon administration say allowing individual tours to North Korea as part of efforts to expand inter-Korean exchanges would help facilitate the nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
But it is difficult to expect such tours to change the stance of the recalcitrant regime, which appears to be bracing for a protracted standoff with the US. Pyongyang seems to have chosen to strengthen its bargaining power by refining its nuclear and missile capabilities.
The North may refuse to extend invitations or issue visas to South Korean tourists at a time when its leader Kim Jong-un is urging his people to step up efforts to build a self-reliant economy.
Washington has not specifically addressed the issue of individual tours.
But a US State Department spokesperson said Friday the US and South Korea were working together to ensure that “inter-Korean cooperation proceeds in lockstep with progress on denuclearization.” The comment suggests that Washington remains wary of any attempt by Seoul to revive inter-Korean projects without consultations with the US.
In what could be viewed as a move to ease Seoul’s heated reaction against Harris’ remarks, an aide to Moon said Saturday South Korea’s push for inter-Korean cooperation would be done in a way that could facilitate the negotiations between the US and the North.
He said Moon’s new initiative would “not be pushed in a way that undermines the bargaining powers of either side.”
This ambiguous approach turns a blind eye to the North’s unequivocal goal to secure the status as a nuclear-armed state and sanctions relief based on its enhanced nuclear and missile capabilities.
The Moon government’s overly eagerness to promote inter-Korean projects seems to reflect its wish to influence voter sentiment in favor of the ruling party ahead of April’s general elections by trumpeting improved ties with the North. This could only risk disrupting coordination with Washington, as Pyongyang continuously gives a cold shoulder to Seoul.