Seoul plays down new U.S. sanctions on North

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Seoul plays down new U.S. sanctions on North

The United States imposed new sanctions on North Korea over the weekend in response to Pyongyang’s alleged cyberattack last month on an American movie company, but South Korea took a conspicuously lukewarm stance in the latest row between the United States and the North.

U.S. President Barack Obama authorized an executive order on Friday imposing sanctions on three North Korean entities, including the country’s intelligence bureau and 10 individuals. The sanctions were a response to the “provocative, destabilizing, and repressive actions and policies of the Government of North Korea, including its destructive, coercive cyber-related actions during November and December 2014,” Obama said in the order.

“The U.S. government’s sanctions are evaluated as an appropriate countermeasure against North Korea’s policies and actions such as its persistent provocations, including the latest Sony Pictures hacking,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul said Saturday in a comment by its spokesman. The statement did not include Seoul’s usual support for a U.S. move against the North.

The comment by Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kwang-il was toned down from Seoul’s earlier statement on the cyberattacks on Sony. After the U.S. government announced that the North had carried out the cyberattacks, the government issued a statement on Dec. 20, 2014, and “condemned the country for such actions.”

At the time, the government also noted the “similarity in the method used in the cyberattacks on Korean financial institutions and others in March 2013 and the recent attacks on Sony Pictures.”

A senior government official said the latest statement was carefully worded to maintain momentum in thawing frozen inter-Korean ties. Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in a New Year’s address that he is open to a summit with President Park Geun-hye.

“We could agree easily to the conclusion of the U.S. government that the North was behind the hacking of Sony because Seoul and Washington had many consultations and we shared information about the damage we suffered from past cyberattacks,” said the official. “But on the new sanctions, we have to assume a careful position, taking into account inter-Korean relations.”

Seoul, therefore, chose to use a lukewarm tone instead of showing enthusiastic support, he said. “Before the commentary was issued, the Foreign Ministry and the Unification Ministry had consultations,” he said. “And the Blue House gave a final confirmation.”

Another government official said Seoul still noted that the sanctions were “appropriate” because it agreed with Washington’s position that Pyongyang’s actions must be sternly dealt with.

The government is also paying special attention to the latest round of sanctions because they are the first official U.S. response to a cyberattack. Until now, sanctions on the North were imposed for its nuclear tests and missile firings.

“We believe the United States has created a larger basis to impose sanctions,” a Foreign Ministry official said. “We have to study this situation more carefully, so the government’s position this time was rather careful.”

“Pyongyang will likely try to improve its relations with Washington and Beijing this year by using its card of a nuclear freeze,” said Professor Kim Hyun-wook, head of the Department of American Studies at the state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. “Seoul is now facing the moment of truth. It has to decide whether its priority will remain in Korea-U.S. cooperation on North Korea issues or whether the inter-Korean talks will become the new priority.”

Kim also warned the Park administration of more diplomatic predicaments. “The government will face more sensitive situations, and it must remember that it can be left out unless it takes initiative in inter-Korean relations,” he said.

The United States has warned that the North will also face more punishment following Obama’s earlier promise of a “proportional” retaliation. The White House called the sanctions “the first aspect of our response” to the Sony attack.

According to the U.S. Treasury, the sanctions were imposed on the North’s government and the Workers’ Party. The North’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation and Korea Tangun Trading Corporation were added to the sanctions list. Ten individuals including General Kim Yong-chol, who oversees the Reconnaissance General Bureau, Pyongyang’s primary intelligence organization and operator of major cyberoperations, were also placed on the list.

The bureau, created in 2009, was responsible for educating and dispatching spies, collecting intelligence and terror operations. It reportedly operates cyberoperation hubs in China.

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