The cart before the horse

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The cart before the horse


Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

As the saying goes, haste makes waste, and Koreans know this all too well. Rushing and skipping the proper order of things can be a big mistake. The Blue House appears to be ignoring the tried and tested rules of inter-Korean relations. The railroad project is an exemplary case.

During his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang last month, South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced the start of construction to connect roads and railways along the east and west coasts of the Korean Peninsula within the year. The Blue House on Sept. 28 announced it would discuss with the U.N. Command a joint Korean study on railway conditions in the North this month.
The plan sounds reasonable, but the Blue House has erred in three areas. First of all, it has gotten the order wrong. To cross the military border, the South must gain approval from the U.N. Command under the 1953 Armistice. The U.N. Command rejected Seoul’s application for railway research in the North in late August. Nevertheless, the Blue House announced the plan without getting a green light from the U.N. Command this time as well. The denial in August caused some leftist groups to criticize the U.N. Command for meddling in the internal affairs of the two Koreas. The Blue House took an equally imperious posture by ordering mainstream political party heads to accompany Moon on his trip to Pyongyang for the summit with Kim.

Second, the move could violate international regulations. Railway projects between the two Koreas would go against United Nations sanctions on North Korea. UN Security Council Resolution 2375 unanimously adopted on Sept. 11, 2017 in response to the North’s sixth nuclear test strictly bans non-commercial and public-purpose infrastructure projects in North Korea without prior approval. South Korea as a UN member is no exception.


South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un exchange copies of the joint Pyongyang Declaration at a guest house in North Korea after their summit on Sept. 19. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

The government is pressing ahead with the railway renovation project without getting permission from the UN Security Council. The Unification Ministry maintains that joint research does not fall under sanctions. But international experts such as Joshua Stanton — a Washington-based lawyer who was the principal drafter of legislation that later became the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 — claim that an inter-Korean study for railway projects goes against the UN resolution.

With the study itself being controversial, how does the Blue House think it can hold a ground-breaking ceremony this year? A ground-breaking ceremony itself means the beginning of construction, which is clearly a violation of the UN resolution if Seoul does not gain prior UN consent. Again, the Blue House should not have rushed to make the announcement to hold a ground-breaking ceremony without taking necessary steps.

Third, the Blue House is making dubious assertions. Announcing the joint probe, presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said that since Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed on the “big picture” of inter-Korean affairs, working-level negotiations would work out smoothly. That suggested Trump approved of active exchanges between the two Koreas during his recent summit with Moon.

But on Sept. 19, spokesman Kim said that Moon and Trump agreed to keep sanctions intact on North Korea. Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized in their UN addresses last week that sanctions were more important than ever.

If South Korea pushes unauthorized railway renovation projects, it could stoke criticism from America and other nations. Railroad connections will have to take place someday. But the work has to be done at the right time and in compliance with international laws.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 2, Page 30
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