Discussions on sanctions take turn

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Discussions on sanctions take turn

Following a rare visit by a high-level delegation from Pyongyang over the weekend, there has been extensive discussion on whether it is time to ease the sanctions imposed on the North four years ago.

Bipartisan lawmakers here also called on the government to lift the May 24 measures, a series of economic sanctions against the reclusive state that were adopted in 2010 after North Korea torpedoed South Korea’s Cheonan warship, following the visit by the group, which was led by Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so.

The measures bar all trade and exchanges with North Korea.

“When it is time for discussion, the National Security Council will take into consideration many different sides and lead rational discussions [on easing the May 24 measures],” Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said on Tuesday at a parliamentary audit session at the National Assembly.

His comments imply a slight shift from the South Korean government’s previous stance that the sanctions not be eased until Pyongyang sincerely apologizes for sinking the Cheonan, an incident that killed 46 soldiers, as well as for a North Korean soldier’s fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist in July 2008 at the Mount Kumgang resort.

Even within the government, there is talk that the May 24 measures should be eased.

“In reality, if we were following the May 24 measures as is, we would not be proposing these sorts of talks with North Korea, let alone President Park Geun-hye inviting North Korea to the Convention on Biological Diversity to be held in Pyeongchang [in October] in her [Aug. 15] Liberation Day address,” said one government official who requested anonymity.

“While the North and South are not talking to each other, until now, we have proposed a number of things that are contradictory to the May 24 measures,” the official added.

The South Korean government has held the view that lifting the May 24 measures could give the impression that Seoul is breaking away from the international community’s tactic of stronger sanctions against Pyongyang.

The May 24 measures were, in a sense, indirectly linked to the international community’s sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and missile activities, such as UN Security Council Resolution 2094 that was unanimously passed in June 2013 to put additional embargoes on the North after its third nuclear test earlier that year in February.

However, in “North and South Korea’s relationship, there are many aspects that are not referred to in the UN Security Council resolutions,” a senior U.S. official from the Department of the Treasury in charge of sanctions against the North said in August.

“Such relations,” the official said, “depend on what sort of relationship the South Korean government wants to forge with the North and are separate from the international community’s pressure on North Korea, such as financial sanctions or bans on weapons trade.”

Companies investing in projects between North and South Korea have also been hit hard by the May 24 measures, which barred business exchanges between the two countries.

According to parliamentary audit documents submitted on Tuesday by the Ministry of Unification, at the time the sanctions were implemented, there were about 1,000 companies involved in trade between North and South Korea.

Of these, 43 companies with government approval had invested a total of 84 billion won ($78.2 million) in such projects, excluding the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the remaining symbol of inter-Korea cooperation.

But since then, many companies have withdrawn due to management difficulties. The Unification Ministry even provided a special 56 billion won loan to 220 businesses.

“A request for an apology should come alongside institutional proposals to mature North-South relations, and if we cling to the notion that the ball has passed to North Korea’s court, its room for action also cannot help but be tightened,” said Park In-hui, a professor in the Graduate School for International Studies at Ewha Womans University.

“It is true that the Park Geun-hye government is showing sincerity in improving relations with North Korea; however, it does not seem to have established an appropriate strategy yet to deal with an offense-oriented North Korea and to widen that elbow room.”

BY YOO JEE-HYE, JEONG WON-YEOB [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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