Seoul considers reducing imports from Pyongyang

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Seoul considers reducing imports from Pyongyang

The South Korean government will consider ways to stifle cash flow into North Korea if the North is found responsible for the attack that sank a South Korean naval warship on March 26.

A Unification Ministry official said yesterday that if the investigation identifies North Korea as the culprit behind the Cheonan disaster, Seoul will consider reducing the volume of inter-Korean trade.

“We will in particular target goods whose export may feed the North Korean military,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.

South Korea currently imports products such as clothing and watches from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where more than 100 South Korean companies employ about 38,000 North Koreans. The South also imports agricultural goods, seafood and minerals.

Sand had previously been the largest import, bringing Pyongyang $73 million from Seoul in 2008. But after the North’s long-range rocket launch in April 2009, South Korea refused to accept North Korean sand. Last October, Seoul decided to import only the amount for which it had already paid, and to delay further imports until inter-Korean relations improved.

The South suspects the North’s military is heavily involved in trading sand and marine produce, and that money generated from these trades goes into military officials’ pockets.

Seoul has been mulling possible responses to Pyongyang, a primary suspect in the Cheonan disaster. Investigators, who have so far identified traces of a powerful explosive among the ship’s wreckage, are expected to announce their findings next week.

If the North is implicated, asking the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions is one of Seoul’s options. The South may also block North Korean vessels from traveling through the Jeju Strait off the south coast of the peninsula. The North can currently use the strait, part of South Korea’s territorial waters, under an inter-Korean agreement that took effect in 2005.

To discuss this and other possibilities, a diplomatic source said yesterday that Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, or a higher-ranked official will visit China, Japan and Russia before the findings are announced.

“The U.S. official will focus on what they all should do to North Korea if the North is found to have sunk the Cheonan,” the source said.

The United States has pressed China to play “a responsible role.” China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, is regarded as the key player in post-Cheonan diplomacy because of its close relationship with North Korea and because unanimity by the Security Council is required to issue a binding resolution.

But China recently promised economic aid to the North, and Xinhua News quoted Chinese President Hu Jintao as saying “Strengthening Sino-DPRK [North Korea] friendly and cooperative relations is the consistent policy of .?.?. the Chinese government.”

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan will also be making diplomatic moves overseas. He is visiting Brussels, Belgium, this week and will meet with foreign ministers of 27 European Union members. Yu will also meet with key European diplomats, including Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, and Catherine Ashton, the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy at the EU.

Yu will then host Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in a two-day trilateral meeting starting Saturday in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang.

By Yoo Jee-ho, Kang Chan-ho []
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