President Moon Jae-in’s government appears to be trying to decouple inter-Korean cooperation from denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea.
In an address marking the third anniversary of his inauguration earlier this month, Moon suggested his government would seek to find what could be done between the two Koreas instead of just looking forward to progress in US-North Korea dialogue.
In what seems to be a follow-up move, the Unification Ministry said last week a set of sanctions slapped on the North over its deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 has since been softened and no longer poses any obstacle to inter-Korean exchange and cooperation.
A ministry spokesperson told a press briefing that previous governments have made various exceptions in implementing the sanctions and much of them have lost their intended effect.
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said later that just because the sanctions imposed by the South on the North a decade ago have mostly lost their effect, it does not necessarily mean that Seoul is considering the possibility of lifting them.
His remarks seem designed to avoid an immediate backlash against lifting the sanctions before eventually moving in that direction without Pyongyang conceding its responsibility and apologizing for the attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
Washington has made it clear that inter-Korean economic cooperation should be pushed ahead in step with progress in efforts to denuclearize the North. The US State Department reiterated the stance in response to comments by the Unification Ministry spokesperson.
The sanctions ban all inter-Korean trade and economic cooperation and bar North Korean ships from sailing through South Korean waters or dropping anchor at ports in the South.
Most of the restrictions have since been included in US-led global sanctions imposed on the North for its nuclear and ballistic missile tests that violated UN resolutions prohibiting them.
As the first step toward nullifying the 2010 sanctions, the Moon government seems to be mulling allowing North Korean ships to sail through the sea between Jeju Island and the southern coast of the South.
UN sanctions call for banning ships engaged in cargo transfer to North Korean vessels from making calls at ports, but put in place no specific restriction on North Korean ships passing through South Korean waters.
The Moon government is expected to go further in expanding space in inter-Korean cooperation regardless of progress in dismantling the North’s nuclear arsenal.
Denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea has remained stalled since the second summit between their leaders ended with no deal in Hanoi in February 2019.
Experts expect no breakthrough before the US presidential election in November. US President Donald Trump is unlikely to show interest in reaching a deal by making significant concessions to Pyongyang without substantial progress toward the complete denuclearization of the recalcitrant regime.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presided over a Central Military Commission meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party to discuss “new policies for further strengthening the nuclear war deterrence of the country,” the North’s state media reported Sunday.
Under the current circumstances, the Moon government might risk weakening the alliance with the US while continuing to be shunned by Pyongyang, if it pushes ahead with lifting sanctions imposed in 2010 and takes other initiatives that go against the international sanctions regime.
Pyongyang has so far made no response to Moon’s proposals to allow South Korean citizens to make individual trips to the North and push for joint quarantine efforts.
The North seems unwilling to talk with the South before reaching a deal with the US, judging that the Moon government cannot ignore Washington’s objection to reopening a joint industrial park and a lucrative package tour program.
If Seoul pushes for such cross-border projects, the South Korea-US alliance might be rattled to the point of undermining security on the peninsula.
Allowing North Korean vessels to sail through South Korean waters could also cause severe problems, as most of them will likely be implicated in illicit acts banned by international sanctions.
Above all, lifting the 2010 sanctions may be considered only after Pyongyang acknowledges its responsibility for the sinking of the South Korean warship, apologizes for it and promises not to repeat such a provocative act. Over the past decade, the North has shown no signs of taking such steps.
For the time being, patience may be the best policy for the Moon administration in enhancing inter-Korean cooperation on a firm footing and securing true peace on the peninsula.