Update at 1645 KST: This article has been amended to reflect a later clarification by the foreign minister.
South Korean government ministries are continuing to review the possibility of lifting the country’s so-called “May 24” sanctions against North Korea, ROK foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha said on Wednesday.
Speaking to lawmakers from the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, Kang was asked whether Seoul was planning on rescinding the May 24 measures.
“We are looking into it with relevant ministries,” Kang told Lee Hae-chan of the country’s ruling Democratic Party, in comments carried by the Yonhap News Agency.
The foreign minister later clarified her comments, however.
“I made the comment in the context that relevant ministries would always review it,” Kang said. “There is no discussion at the level of the entire government.”
“The issue of lifting sanctions should be reviewed considering the situation of inter-Korean relations as a whole,” she continued, in response to a question from lawmaker Chung Jin-suk.
“My comments meant that it is necessary to flexibly review it… when inter-Korean relations have been improved and denuclearization talks are under way,” she added.
“As May 24 measures are a significant administrative order, the government should review it continuously. But I didn’t mean to say the review is underway at the level of the entire government.”
“As many parts of May 24 measures overlap with Security Council measures, the lifting [of May 24 measures] wouldn’t lead to substantive [sanctions relief].”
The May 24 measures were imposed by the South in 2010 in response to North Korea’s sinking of the ROK navy Cheonan corvette – an incident in which 46 South Korean sailors were killed.
The sanctions banned DPRK vessels sailing into South Korean waters and docking at its ports, as well as prohibited South Koreans from importing Northern goods besides those manufactured at the then-operational Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC).
The measures also put a stop to South Koreans visiting the North, all non-humanitarian cooperation projects, and prohibited Southerners from contacting Northern citizens or investing in DPRK companies.
South Korea in February provided exemptions from the measures to allow the arrival of a North Korean art performance squad to the South via ferry.
The DPRK has long argued that the measures are an obstacle to improving inter-Korean relations, with the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in 2015 describing them as “cancer-like.”
State media as recently as July denounced the South Korean government for upholding the May 24 measures, describing the behavior as “preposterous” and an obstacle to “a new journey of inter-Korean relations.”
Foreign minister Kang also on Wednesday said the measures were a key obstacle to the restarting of South Korean tourism to Mt. Kumgang.
“I saw many Chinese tourists in a Pyongyang hotel, is it because of 5.24 measures that Kumgang tour is now forbidden, not because of UN sanctions?” lawmaker Lee, who visited the DPRK capital last month, asked, to which the minister replied in the affirmative.
The two Koreas last month agreed to restart tourism at Kumgang, as well as cooperation at the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) “as soon as the conditions are established” – a phrase widely interpreted as shorthand for international sanctions.
South Korea last imposed unilateral sanctions on the DPRK in December 2017, in measures targeting 20 North Korean entities and 12 individuals.
Those measures came just over a month after the Moon Jae-in government blacklisted 18 North Koreans linked to the country’s banking system.
Dagyum Ji contributed reporting
Featured image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA)