Park advised to ease sanctions, engage NorthAs China’s military presence and Japan’s nationalism swell, specialists in North Korean affairs are advising President Park Geun-hye to mend fences with Pyongyang by lifting sanctions against the regime.
The so-called May 24 measures were economic sanctions imposed by former president Lee Myung-bak in the aftermath of the sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan in March 2010. They were imposed a few weeks later.
The sanctions ban most government-level assistance and cross-border businesses.
They prohibit North Korean ships from sailing in South Korean waters and South Korean people from visiting, investing or opening any new businesses in North Korea.
The sanctions froze most inter-Korean interactions, with the exception of business at the nine-year-old Kaesong Industrial Complex, some humanitarian aid and religious events.
According to the analysts advising Park, prolonged tension on the Korean Peninsula will make South Korea more dependent on protection by superpowers, and neighboring countries will use heightened tensions to expand their military reach in the region. South Korea will be the big loser.
“While the nearby superpowers have all started their power games, if inter-Korean relations get worse, everything will deteriorate,” Han Wan-sang, former deputy prime minster of unification, said. “We should play a pivotal role as a powerful peacemaker in Northeast Asia.”
Some former presidential staffers from the Lee Myung-bak administration are calling for the sanctions to be dropped.
“To bring North Korea to the path of reconciliation and coexistence, we should meet with them first and ponder how to ease the May 24 sanctions,” a former Blue House secretary who worked for Lee said on condition of anonymity. “We need to remove the measures through behind-the-scenes negotiations with North Korea.”
The lifting of the sanctions is also necessary for President Park’s “trustpolitik” policy toward the North, her so-called trust-building process, analysts say.
It is also needed for any progress on Park’s ambitious projects to build a “peace park” in the Demilitarized Zone and a railroad through North Korea to Russia.
“Given the economic situation in North Korea, the construction of the DMZ peace park would definitely be led by our government,” a South Korean government official said.
“However, due to the May 24 sanctions, which prohibit investments and visits to North Korea, we can only build the park in our part of the DMZ.”
Analysts said the sanctions are also causing economic losses to some South Korean businessmen who traded with the North.
“As a policy, the May 24 sanctions are not effective anymore,” said Kim Geun-sik, a North Korean studies professor at Kyungnam University. “While the South Korean companies suffered losses, the Northern companies covered their losses by expanding business with China.”
Lifting the sanctions could bring some economic benefits to South Korea, some analysts said, especially if a second industrial complex is built like the one in Kaesong.
“If we don’t use some border regions based on principle and trust between the two Koreas, it would be very difficult to carry out the so-called Green Detente,” Jeong Ho-jo, head of Cheolwon County, Gangwon, an eastern border region, said.
“Building a new cross-border factory park would become a new chapter to revitalize the economy for small or midsized companies and conglomerates.”
Easing the sanctions would require a bold decision by the president, analysts said.
“It would be as tough a decision to ease the sanctions as it was to impose them,” a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University said.
“But we need to consider how long the government should maintain frosty inter-Korean relations to earn support from anti-North Korean people, and whether that is indeed in the national interest or not.”
“If we can’t lift the sanctions entirely right now, we could take steps gradually in the name of a flexible easing program,” Cho Bong-hyun, a research fellow at the IBK Institute, said.
“In the second half of 2014, the president could say she is considering lifting them, or the Assembly could propose a bill first and urge the administration to approve it.”
“After observing the attitude of North Korea toward us for the first half of the year, we need to review whether we should ease the sanctions or not, right after the June 2014 nationwide elections,” Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korean studies professor at Korea University, said.
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