South Korea’s foreign minister said that Seoul is considering lifting some of its unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang to create more momentum for diplomacy aimed at improving relations and defusing the nuclear crisis.
Kang Kyung-wha on Wednesday told legislators that the government is reviewing whether to lift sanctions South Korea imposed on the North in 2010 after a deadly attack on a warship that killed 45 South Korean sailors.
“A review (of the issue) is under way” in consultation with other related government agencies, Foreign Minister Kang said.
Seoul then effectively shut down all cross-border economic cooperation except for a joint factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, where business activities and investment were also scaled back.
Seoul shut down the Kaesong factory park in February 2016 in retaliation for a North Korean nuclear test and long-range rocket launch.
Seoul’s potential removal of unilateral sanctions would be a largely symbolic move as it’s virtually impossible for South Korea to resume joint economic projects with North Korea under US-led international sanctions, which have been strengthened considerably since 2016 as the North accelerated its nuclear and missile tests.
As for the reaction to the news of Kang’s announcement, US President Donald Trump said the South Korean proposal to lift some unilateral sanctions will only take place with his say-so.
Asked about Seoul considering lifting some sanctions to create space for diplomacy with North Korea, Trump says: “They won’t do that without our approval. They do nothing without our approval.”
Trump has encouraged US allies to maintain sanctions on North Korea until it denuclearises as part of what his administration has termed a campaign of “maximum pressure” against the government of Kim Jong Un.
Kang said earlier on Wednesday that the government is reviewing whether to lift sanctions imposed on the North.
The previous conservative administration of Lee Myung-bak introduced the sanctions to prevent almost all inter-Korean ties except for humanitarian assistance.
Despite some cross-border exchanges this year, the main elements of the sanctions, such as a ban on trade and investment, remain valid, overlapping with the UN-led punishments of Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile programmes.
Meanwhile, Kang said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed displeasure over an agreement reached between the rival Koreas last month to reduce conventional military threats between them.
Kang had replied in the affirmative on Wednesday when a legislator asked her whether a Japanese media report was correct that Pompeo had complained strongly about the agreement, which was announced during a summit between the Koreas in Pyongyang last month.
Kang did not specify what Pompeo was unhappy about. She said Pompeo asked “multiple questions” about the content of the agreement.
The agreement calls for the creation of buffer zones along the Koreas’ land and sea boundaries and a no-fly zone above the border to prevent accidental clashes.
It also provides for a reduction of weaponry and guards at the border and the defining of sections of the Demilitarised Zone.
Kang’s comments are likely to increase speculation that Washington was not fully on board before Seoul signed the agreement.