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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
Relations between North and South Korea have become “completely frozen” because of Seoul’s choice to go along with U.S. sanctions policy on the DPRK, one of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s top advisors said in Washington on Monday.
The advisor, Moon Chung-in, blamed sanctions for getting in the way of Seoul’s plans to create a so-called “peace economy,” which the Moon administration claims would integrate the two Koreas’ economies and bring the two countries closer together, thereby leading to peace.
“In order to make the peace economy work, there have to be economic transactions from North Korea,” said Moon, speaking at the Center for the National Interest, a think tank in Washington. “But international sanctions prevent South Korea from engaging with North Korea.”
Moon cited the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tourist site — two now-shuttered inter-Korean ventures that were once hailed as symbols of cooperation on the peninsula — as examples of projects that can’t go forward now because of sanctions.
He said President Moon Jae-in has wanted to reopen both.
This past October, DPRK leader Kim Jong Un visited Mount Kumgang, decried the tourist site as “built like makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area,” and called for the North to tear it down and replace it with something better.
The site was closed in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist.
The Kaesong Industrial Complex was closed in 2016 by former South Korean President Park Geun-hye after the North tested a nuclear weapon.
Some of the most punishing sanctions targeting the North were not put in place until after Pyongyang tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in late 2017.
“The North Koreans argue that South Korea hasn’t delivered anything to North Korea,” presidential advisor Moon Chung-in said. “Therefore [President Moon Jae-in] is having a real hard time in pushing for the idea of peace building through the peace economy.”
“We have been betting on the United States 100 percent,” he added. “We have been 100 percent coordinating with the United States. We have shown 100 percent transparency to the U.S. with regard to inter-Korean economic exchanges and cooperation.”
“As a result of that, inter-Korean relations have become completely frozen,” he said.
Moon Chung-in’s comments come as the U.S.-South Korean alliance appears to have become strained over the last year, beyond the issue of sanctions enforcement.
The two countries have clashed over “burden sharing” — essentially, a question of how much money South Korea should have to pay to the U.S. for the American troop presence on the peninsula.
President Donald Trump and his top deputies have insisted that South Korea pay a larger share of the cost.
The Trump administration reportedly pushed in negotiations for Seoul to pay five times more than it had in the past — up to about $5 billion — but it is unclear if the U.S. is still insisting on that amount now.
At the end of last year, the U.S. Congress included a line in the country’s annual defense bill that would effectively prevent President Trump from removing any U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula — something Trump has long suggested he would like to do.
In the aftermath of the U.S. attack on a top Iranian general over the weekend, Seoul is also said to be debating whether to send troops to join the Americans in patrols of the Strait of Hormuz, next to Iran, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
Moon Chung-in, the presidential advisor, said the government in Seoul is facing a “dilemma” right now.
“What should we do if the United States cannot make a breakthrough in its talks with North Korea?” he said, adding that President Moon Jae-in’s supporters would likely call for the South to take “independent action” if the U.S. does not make more progress soon.
“South Korea’s a democracy,” he said. “Moon Jae-in needs continued support from his supporters. If President Moon cannot deliver to his supporters, then he will face a political dilemma. In that sense, he is completely sandwiched right now.”