UN waives sanctions for remains recovery

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UN waives sanctions for remains recovery

The United Nations Security Council granted a sanctions waiver for an inter-Korean project to recover the remains of fallen soldiers from the 1950-53 Korean War from the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries, according to a diplomatic source Monday.

The decision to allow the transfer of equipment and materials to North Korea for the excavation - which had been blocked due to international sanctions - was made last week at the 15-member Council, the source said.

The waiver from the UN is believed to be a follow up to a broad agreement reached on the issue during working talks between South Korea and the United States on Jan. 17. During that meeting, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, and his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, reportedly discussed a wide range of inter-Korean initiatives, which included providing humanitarian assistance to the North, visits by South Korean businessmen to the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the transfer of equipment to the North to allow for video conferences between divided family members in the two Koreas.

Biegun and Lee are also believed to have agreed to grant a sanctions exemption to projects involving the excavation of war remains and inspections by South Korean officials of the North’s roads. Seoul subsequently filed for an exemption for the two projects with the UN.

With this exemption, the two Koreas can now go ahead with excavating the remains of their war dead - one of the core promises made in the first summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in April last year.

During Moon’s third summit with Kim at Pyongyang last September, the two Koreas’ defense chiefs signed a military agreement in which they pledged to transform the DMZ into a “peace zone.” They planned the removal of around a dozen guard posts on each side, removal of weapons from the Joint Security Area (JSA) and the excavation of war remains from the area. The first two elements of that agreement, which did not require UN approval, were successfully implemented without major issues throughout last year, with all mines removed from the JSA by late October and 11 guard posts completely demolished by either side by November.

With international approval now secured, the two countries are set to carry out their excavation project from April to October as they had planned in last year’s military agreement.

One aspect of the recent waiver concerns the transfer of equipment to remove land mines, which the North requested from the South during their military talks. The South’s Defense Ministry reportedly asked the Foreign Ministry whether it would violate the sanctions if they bought foreign-built equipment to lease to the North for the project.

The excavation will focus on a part of the DMZ known as Arrowhead Ridge - or Hill 281 - in Cheorwon, where a preliminary land mine-clearance operation took place last month to ensure safety during the dig for remains. Fierce fighting ensued in the area throughout the war, particularly around 1952, and around 300 remains of soldiers from South Korea, the United States and France are believed to be buried on the ridge.

At the end of last year, a narrow road was paved in the ridge to transport equipment and personnel into the area for the planned excavation, which Choi Jong-kun, the South’s presidential secretary for peace and arms control, called “infrastructure to build peace.”

The inspections of the North’s roads, which are part of a wider inter-Korean initiative to modernize the North’s railways and roads and connect them to the South’s, remain under review at the Security Council

Officials in Seoul appear optimistic the inspections will also be granted a waiver, since it is only a preliminary step to gauge the state of the North’s roads in preparation for actual construction - a step that would require a breakthrough in Pyongyang’s denuclearization negotiations with Washington.

In November and December last year, the Security Council granted waivers for joint inspections by the two Koreas of the North’s railroads, as well as a groundbreaking ceremony for the project that took place with high-level officials from both sides present at Kaesong on Dec. 26. With sanctions relief possibly on the table for the second U.S.-North Korea summit slated for February, the excavation and road inspection projects could serve as the groundwork for progress in inter-Korean cooperation in the near future.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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