Schisms on sanctionsSouth Korea-U.S. relations are getting shaky. After Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha hinted at the possibility of easing our sanctions on North Korea at the National Assembly, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday, “South Korea will not lift sanctions on Pyongyang without U.S. approval.” The Blue House explained that his remarks meant the two allies are closely cooperating with each other.
But security experts don’t think so. They say Trump’s remarks could reflect Washington’s concerns about a growing rift between the two allies over the path toward denuclearization of North Korea. What worries us most is Trump’s tough rhetoric. He reiterated that Seoul will not lift sanctions on Pyongyang without U.S. approval. His choice of the word — approval — could sound very offensive as it suggests the United States denies us our sovereignty.
A bigger problem comes with Washington’s disgruntlement about the possibility of Seoul going soft on the sanctions front. Trump is convinced that international sanctions brought North Korea into denuclearization talks. He also believes sanctions are Uncle Sam’s leverage for denuclearization. But Kang’s remarks can be seen as an attempt by Seoul to break away from the international sanctions.
To make matters worse, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo allegedly expressed his dissatisfaction about a recent military agreement between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Washington thinks that Seoul is rushing to improve inter-Korean relations without sufficient consultation with it. Such a gap in views is not new. The United States was irritated at the cases of North Korean coal being smuggled into South Korea, the opening of an inter-Korean liaison office in North Korea, and South Korea’s plan to renovate the old railway system in the North.
Some security analysts regard Trump’s rhetoric as a “warning” to South Korea to not act on its own on sanctions. The State Department’s emphasis on sanctions also sends the message that Seoul should not improve relations with Pyongyang before denuclearization.
Trump owes a lot to Moon for his first summit with Kim and possibly another one soon. But Washington and Pyongyang are still divided over what should come first: concrete actions by Pyongyang to denuclearize or Washington’s corresponding measures. The government must act very carefully.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 12, Page 30