|Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun, right, an independent lawmaker who heads the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, shakes hands with Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul during their meeting at the Assembly in Seoul, Friday. / Yonhap|
By Kang Seung-woo
In the wake of government officials' comments that South Korea's own sanctions on North Korea have virtually lost their effects, questions are arising over whether the South would lift the measures officially.
However, even though the "May 24 measures" remain only symbolic following tougher sanctions by the global community, it may not be easy for the Moon Jae-in administration to make such a drastic move, as their lifting could cause a strong political backlash from conservatives domestically and the international community is still firmly retaining sanctions on Pyongyang.
The economic sanctions, imposed by the Lee Myung-bak administration in 2010 in retaliation to the North's torpedoing of the South's naval ship, the Cheonan, ban inter-Korean economic exchanges and cooperation.
"The May 24 measures pose no longer a barrier to inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation," South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Yoh Sang-key said during a press briefing, Wednesday.
He also said previous governments had taken a flexible approach and allowed exceptions in implementation of the sanctions, adding that much of the sanctions have lost their purpose.
His remarks stand in stark contrast to Seoul's previous stance on the standalone sanctions, fanning speculation that the South Korean government is edging toward lifting the decade-old sanctions.
Last year on the occasion of their ninth anniversary, the unification ministry said that the lifting of the sanctions needs to be reviewed in light of inter-Korean relations and within the frame of the international community's sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime. When the North sent its delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February 2018, the South Korean government maintained the sanctions but granted an exemption for the occasion.
In October 2018, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha brought up the issue by saying the government was reviewing whether to lift its sanctions, but amid growing criticism from the conservative opposition parties, then Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said the following day that the government had no plans to lift them.
The South's change of stance on the sanctions is based on its judgment that the sanctions are merely a scrap of paper at this point given that inter-Korean ties have improved since Moon's inauguration in 2017.
However, the punitive measures are not expected to be lifted anytime soon, according to the ministry and experts.
"There are no plans to issue follow-up comments at this moment," Yoh said during Friday's briefing, adding that the government has never mentioned the possibility of scrapping the sanctions.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, also said he did not believe the government would announce the revocation of the sanctions.
"The Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations tried to get the North to make an official apology for the Cheonan sinking with the sanctions, but to no avail. In addition, they also allowed some exceptions in its implementation, meaning that they also questioned the sanctions' effect," he said.
"The Moon administration is now adopting a new strategic approach, aimed at addressing the matter through dialogue and cooperation without ruining the goal of the May 24 measures."
In addition, with the North still under international sanctions, it is a daunting task to independently lift the South's measures, as evidenced by a U.S. response to the ministry's comments.
"The United States supports inter-Korean cooperation and coordinates with our Republic of Korea ally to ensure inter-Korean cooperation proceeds in lockstep with progress on denuclearization," a State Department official told the Voice of America, Wednesday.