The South Korean government could potentially ask for exemptions from international sanctions in order to pursue cooperation with the North, the country’s foreign minister said on Tuesday.
Speaking to reporters following a meeting with U.S. and Japanese counterparts in Silicon Valley, minister Kang Kyung-wha reiterated Seoul’s plans to seek new ways to push ahead with long-stalled inter-Korean cooperation projects.
The two Koreas have already agreed to restart cooperation in a number of areas, Kang said, including some in “areas that were not especially problematic in regards to sanctions.”
“But I clearly think that there are also projects which, if there is a problem of sanctions, can be done through receiving sanctions exceptions,” she said, in comments carried by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, an issue she was said to have raised with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“It is important to keep the momentum of engagement towards North Korea alive through inter-Korean dialogue in areas which the South and North can handle, in the current situation where the DPRK-U.S. dialogue for denuclearization and the improvement of U.S.-DPRK relations are not making progress.”
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to NK News‘s requests for details of Secretary of State Pompeo’s response to those remarks, which do not appear in a U.S. read-out of the meeting.
But the issue will likely be on the agenda later this week, when South Korea’s top nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon is set to meet with U.S. counterpart Stephen Biegun in Washington DC.
The foreign minister’s remarks follow similar comments by South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a new year’s press conference on Tuesday, in which he suggested that Seoul could “make efforts” towards winning exemptions that could allow stalled inter-Korean projects to go ahead.
South Korea’s continued support for the international sanctions regime proved a major source of frustration for the North in 2019 — a year which saw inter-Korean cooperation grind to a halt and a standoff between the two Koreas over the status of once jointly-run facilities at Mount Kumgang.
But increasingly frustrated by a lack of progress in DPRK-U.S. diplomacy, and U.S. insistence that sanctions must remain in place until North Korea takes substantive steps towards denuclearization, officials in Seoul have in recent weeks stepped up calls for a more “independent” line towards Pyongyang.
Among these proposals has been the possibility of a resumption of inter-Korean tourism projects, on hold since a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier at the Mount Kumgang resort in 2008.
Speaking at a regular briefing on Wednesday, Ministry of Unification (MOU) spokesperson Kim Eun-han said that Seoul was looking into “various formats” that would allow those kinds of tours to resume.
“Individual trips do not violate UN Security Council sanctions and [we] could actively review it if the personal safety of our people are guaranteed,” he said.
“There are inter-Korean cooperative projects subject to consultations between South Korea and the U.S., and there are projects that the South and the North could push for on their own.”
But any exemptions from international sanctions for inter-Korean projects would likely be hard to come by: exemptions are typically primarily granted to humanitarian organizations working in the DPRK on aid projects.
The UN’s 1718 sanctions committee has in the past provided exemptions to allow inter-Korean projects to go ahead, having in November 2018 granted Seoul permission to provide supplies to the North’s inter-Korean military communication line on the west coast.
That year also saw the committee give the go-ahead to a visit to South Korea by Choe Hwi, a senior North Korean official previously placed under a travel ban for his role in the North Korean propaganda apparatus.
Any exemptions would also require tacit approval from the U.S., which has repeatedly insisted that North Korea must take substantive steps towards relinquishing its nuclear weapons before it sees any relief from international sanctions — an argument that has repeatedly scuppered progress in diplomacy between the two countries.
“The United States and our ally the Republic of Korea coordinate closely on our efforts related to the DPRK, and we are committed to close coordination on our unified response to North Korea,” a State Department spokesperson told South Korean media following President’s New Year’s press conference.
As a result, one expert said, minister Kang’s suggestions on Tuesday were unlikely to garner much support.
“Kang’s request to the U.S. Secretary of State for sanctions exemption to inter-Korean economic projects likely will invite the same answer that the U.S. has always given: that inter-Korean relations need to go in lockstep with progress in denuclearization,” Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister service NK Pro, said.
“Even if Seoul succeeded in winning some concessions from Washington, Pyongyang will likely not change its policy of bypassing and ignoring South Korea.”
Jeongmin Kim contributed translation
Edited by James Fretwell