South Korea considers lifting sanctions against North Korea

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in walking together in Samjiyon, North Korea, on Sept 20, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (NYTIMES) - South Korea said on Wednesday (Oct 10) that it was considering lifting a sweeping embargo on bilateral trade and exchanges with North Korea, despite Washington's efforts to keep the economic noose on the North until it denuclearises.

South Korea's President, Mr Moon Jae-in, has dangled large investment and joint economic projects as an incentive for the North to bargain away its nuclear weapons.

But he has vowed to honour United Nations sanctions and refrain from significant economic cooperation with the North unless it starts denuclearising.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha suggested that South Korea was becoming increasingly willing to ease its own sanctions against the North in order to encourage its denuclearisation.

Her comments did not apply to the broad sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council.

"We are reviewing it with related government agencies," Ms Kang said during a parliamentary hearing when a senior governing party legislator asked her whether South Korea was willing to lift sanctions imposed in 2010.

Officials cautioned that even if South Korea lifted its own sanctions, there was no way for it to foster economic relations with the North significantly because it had to abide by the UN limits.

Many of South Korea's sanctions against the North are already duplicated by United Nations ones, so lifting them would be merely symbolic, they said.

Any premature easing of penalties is bound to face a backlash from conservative South Koreans, who fear it could undermine their country's alliance with the United States.

Washington has repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping "maximum" economic pressure on the North until it denuclearises.

It also has demanded that South Korea not improve inter-Korean ties too fast without progress on the issue.

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the North's leader, Mr Kim Jong Un, on Sunday, Mr Pompeo said North Korea agreed to let outside inspectors confirm that the country had permanently dismantled its only known nuclear test site.

While speaking to the UN General Assembly last month, North Korea's Foreign Minister, Mr Ri Yong Ho, said that there was "no way" his country would unilaterally disarm unless Washington took steps to show that it is no longer a threat.

Mr Ri cited Washington's campaign to escalate sanctions against the North as a prime example of American hostility.

South Korea imposed its toughest sanctions against North Korea in 2010, after 46 of its sailors were killed when a South Korean Navy ship sank in an explosion in waters near the border with the North.

Investigators from South Korea and several other nations, including the United States, concluded that a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine sank the ship.

The sanctions banned all trade, investment, travel and exchanges with North Korea. They also banned North Korean merchant ships from using South Korean waters, forcing them to take costly detours that use more fuel. South Korea also all but terminated humanitarian aid for the North.

Officials in Pyongyang have denied any involvement in the ship's sinking. But conservative South Koreans insist on maintaining the penalties until North Korea apologises.

Some South Korean sanctions have already begun easing under Mr Moon, including a ban on travel to North Korea.

When he met last month with Mr Kim in Pyongyang, the capital, the South agreed to discuss letting North Korean commercial ships use the South's shipping lanes again.

Before the 2010 embargo was imposed, South Korea rivalled China as among North Korea's biggest trading partners.

Now, North Korea depends on China for almost all of its external trade. Liberal politicians in South Korea fear that by cutting trade ties with North Korea, South Korea has lost leverage, pushing the North closer to China.

In recent months, some lawmakers affiliated with Mr Moon's governing Democratic Party have begun calling for easing the trade embargo.

Mr Moon's government has indicated that it is willing to allow trade and exchanges with the North only to the extent that they do not violate UN sanctions.

Calls for easing sanctions grew in South Korea especially after President Donald Trump claimed progress in denuclearising the North after his summit meeting with Mr Kim in Singapore in June.

Afterwards, Mr Trump said that the North Korean nuclear crisis had been "largely solved" and that "there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea".

On Tuesday, Mr Trump said: "I think we've made incredible progress. Beyond incredible."

Describing that progress, he said: "You've got no rockets flying. You have no missiles flying. You have no nuclear testing. You have nuclear closings."

But Mr Trump said Washington was not ready to drop sanctions. "I'd love to remove them, but we have to get something for doing that," he said.

He also sounded as if he was not in a hurry to meet Mr Kim again, despite his recent enthusiasm for a second meeting. He said a second summit meeting would be held after the mid-term congressional elections on Nov 6.

"It'll be after the mid-terms. I just can't leave now," he said, speaking to reporters as he flew to Iowa for a political rally.

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