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Seoul watches its words on Syria

Foreign Ministry drops mention of U.S. in statement on strikes

Apr 17,2018
As Seoul walks a fine diplomatic line to bring Washington and Pyongyang to the discussion table, making sure to keep the peace until May or early June when their leaders meet for the first-ever summit between the two countries, South Korea’s Foreign Affairs Ministry appears to have felt the pressure not to confuse the mood while drafting its official statements on global affairs.

A little before 9 p.m. on Sunday, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Seoul perceived the proliferation and use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and safety that cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.

“The ROK government,” the statement continued, referring to South Korea by its official name, the Republic of Korea, “actively supports the international community’s efforts to prevent the use of chemical weapons, especially the deaths of innocent civilians caused by it.”

Conspicuously missing from the two-sentence announcement was any mention of the United States or its latest military attack on Syria, though the title indicated it was in response to exactly that: “MOFA Spokesperson’s Commentary on Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria.” MOFA stands for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Syria is a strong ally of North Korea, one of very few countries that doesn’t shy away from hailing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

Seoul’s response struck a different tone from the one that followed Washington’s previous strike on Syria one year ago.

On April 7, 2017, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement entitled “MOFA Spokesperson’s Commentary on US Response of Chemical Weapon in Syria,” which said that the country “strongly supports the relevant efforts of the US government,” including its “stern response to the use of a chemical weapon in Syria.”

That earlier response was issued nine hours after the Donald Trump administration confirmed it took military action on facilities linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program, after Assad’s regime was accused of using chemical weapons against civilians.

The latest commentary from Seoul’s Foreign Affairs Ministry was issued about 35 hours after Trump explained America’s attack on Syria in a national address at the White House.

Wi Sung-lac, visiting professor of political science and international relations at Seoul National University and a retired diplomat who joined South Korea’s delegation for the six-party denuclearization talks in the first and second rounds from 2003 to 2004 as deputy chief negotiator, noted how the exacerbation of relations between the United States and Russia, another key ally of Syria and the North, could affect the North Korea nuclear crisis.

Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ security policy program, analyzed that Washington’s strike on Syria could improve its negotiation powers for when Trump meets Kim Jong-un in the coming weeks, because the United States proved that its military options were real.

North Korea hasn’t mentioned anything regarding the latest attack through its state-run media.

On April 7, 2017, shortly after then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced America’s strike on Syrian facilities, the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper ran an English article that said Kim Jong-un sent a “message of greeting” to Assad, congratulating him and his Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party on the 70th anniversary of the party’s founding.

The article, which ran on the front page of Rodong Sinmun the same day, read in English that the party was “resolutely struggling to courageously shatter the vicious challenge and aggressive moves of the hostile forces at home and abroad.”

BY YOO JEE-HYE, PARK YU-MI [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]


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