Seoul may have skirted North sanctions

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Seoul may have skirted North sanctions

The UN sanctions committee on North Korea will charge in an upcoming report that Seoul breached international sanctions by failing to report shipments of petroleum products to North Korea last year, Japan’s Kyodo News reported Thursday, citing unidentified diplomatic sources.

Hours after the news broke, Noh Kyu-duk, spokesman for Seoul’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, told a regular press briefing that he’s heard nothing about “the panel of experts mentioning our government violated [UN] resolutions.”

According to the Kyodo article, South Korea shipped 340 tons of petroleum products across the border from January to November last year for use at the joint liaison office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. Around 300 tons were consumed, chiefly for power and heating purposes at the office, which serves as a meeting ground for South-North consultations. The rest was brought back to South Korea unused.

Kyodo did not say when exactly the UN report will be released. It also didn’t explain whether the South shipped petroleum products to the North before both Koreas formally agreed to set up a liaison office.

That agreement was reached on April 27, when South Korean President Moon Jae-in held his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom. The liaison office officially opened last September.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles South-North issues and overlooks the management of the Kaesong office, did not release a statement on the Kyodo report Thursday and referred all questions to the Foreign Ministry, saying the latter was responsible for reporting to the UN.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh said Thursday that Seoul discussed the liaison office issue with the United States last year as it was preparing for the project and that the South Korean government “received the international society’s understanding” to carry out the initiative.

Noh, without saying whether Seoul actually reported the petroleum shipments to the UN, said the goods were “only used for South-North exchanges and cooperation projects” and that the unused portion was brought back to the South.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions committee has never accused Seoul of violating UN resolutions against Pyongyang and the government has promised it would respect international sanctions foremost when engaging with the regime.

Washington has urged allies across the world to maintain sanctions on Pyongyang until the final, fully verified denuclearization, also known as FFVD. For some sensitive projects, such as a field survey of North Korean railways, Seoul asked the Council for a sanctions exemption beforehand to carry banned materials into the North.

A lawmaker from South Korea’s main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) was one of the first people to raise the petroleum issue last August, when he revealed the country transported more than 8 tons to Kaesong from June to July. A local government official at the time said Seoul didn’t need approval from the UN because the fuel was going to be used by South Koreans working in the office.

Citing data from the Korea Customs Service, Rep. Cheong Yang-seok said the South shipped 82,918 kilograms (182,802 pounds) of oil and diesel over the two months and that 81,823 kilograms were consumed in the North, while the rest were returned to the South.

North Korea has urged an easing of sanctions as it carries out steps toward denuclearization, but Washington has refused to give the carrot, insisting that FFVD must come first, which led bilateral talks to break down late last year.

It appeared there was a breakthrough early this month when a high-level official from Pyongyang visited Washington to talk with officials in the State Department and deliver a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to U.S. President Donald Trump. Shortly after the meeting, the White House announced that a second Kim-Trump summit was officially on for late February.

But CNN reported Wednesday that the denuclearization talks - both at the State Department level and with the White House - “got nowhere,” citing a source familiar with the discussions. While the discussions focused entirely on the planning of the next summit, the North Korean envoy conveyed that Kim was still refusing to yield anything until he gets a major commitment from the United States, namely a peace agreement to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice, leaving the two Koreas still technically at war.

Yet while the Trump White House has refused to lift sanctions for now, the Washington Times reported Monday that it was quietly preparing a special “economic package” in a kind of escrow account to entice Kim into taking steps toward dismantling his missile and nuclear development program.

Citing unnamed sources, the Times said the plan centered on the idea of securing guarantees for billions of dollars worth of cash contributions from South Korea, Japan, the European Union and others that would be used for North Korean infrastructure and development projects.

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