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Disagreement on North Korea sanctions feared to weaken Seoul-Washington alliance

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Experts mixed on partial lifting of economic penalties

By Kang Seung-woo

As ever-tightening U.S. sanctions have yet to achieve its policy goals, a discrepancy between South Korea and the United States in their respective views on whether to continue full implementation of economic punishment against North Korea is coming to the fore.

Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said earlier this month that the time was ripe for the consideration of sanctions relief, the latest move by the Moon Jae-in administration to engage the North on denuclearization.

However, the U.S. State Department stressed the need to fully implement United Nations (U.N.) Security Council sanctions on the "rogue" state a few days later, a sign that the Joe Biden administration will not partially lift sanctions anytime soon in order to restart denuclearization talks that have been deadlocked since the collapse of a Hanoi summit between the U.S. and North Korea in February 2019.

"There has been a rift between Washington and Seoul over sanctions on North Korea for quite some time. But more broadly, the two countries seem to be at odds over policy on North Korea writ large. The South Korean government has been more vocal about the need to relax sanctions on North Korea in recent weeks," said Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst now with the Rand Corp.

U.S. Naval War College Professor Terence Roehrig also said, "There is definitely disagreement in Seoul and Washington over sanctions relief, and I doubt the Biden administration is going to change that position anytime soon."

He added: "The administration's agenda is occupied by many other issues and there is little political incentive to offer a conciliatory proposal to North Korea."

Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong speaks during a National Assembly audit session, Oct. 1. Yonhap
Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong speaks during a National Assembly audit session, Oct. 1. Yonhap

However, even diplomatic observers are mixed on the efficacy of the U.S. sanction-driven policy toward Pyongyang.

"An end-of-war declaration should be the first confidence building initiative with North Korea. Assuming Pyongyang is amenable, which I think they will be, then the U.S. and the ROK, with the DPRK can come together ― possibly also including China ― to announce this decision on, after 68 years, finally declaring an end to the Korean War," said Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. special envoy to the six-party talks.

President Moon Jae-in proposed declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War in a speech at the U.N. last month and Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, responded positively.

"After that, assuming Pyongyang would agree to resume denuclearization talks with the U.S., the subject of lifting sanctions can be broached, in the context of a willingness to discuss the lifting of post-2016 sanctions in return for a moratorium on missile launches and a halt to the production of fissile material," he noted, adding that once that's established, denuclearization negotiations could be pursued on an action-for-action basis.

Roehrig expressed a similar view, advising that policymakers in both countries must shift their planning to what might actually be achievable goals.

"Despite the recent attention given to a proposal for a peace declaration, I doubt this possibility is as important to North Korea as some measure of sanctions relief," Roehrig said.

"For any type of dialogue to resume, some concessions on sanctions will need to be offered by South Korea and the United States. But this need not be a giveaway and can be part of a careful negotiation strategy that seeks a calibrated, diplomatic approach in a step-by-step manner for policy goals that can actually be achieved."

On the other hand, some analysts believe it is premature to consider sanctions relief amid North Korea's serial hostile behavior.

"All sanctions are not alike. U.N. resolution sanctions are mostly responses to North Korea nuclear and missile violations of U.N. resolutions and can be altered by a vote of the U.N. Security Council. U.S. sanctions cover a wider range of misbehavior, including criminal activity and human rights violations. U.S. sanctions would not be applied if North Korean ended its abhorrent actions," said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst and senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation.

"North Korea has not ceased its violations of U.N. resolutions nor of U.S. laws. Therefore, sanctions relief should only be implemented when Pyongyang has improved its behavior or as part of a negotiated settlement, not as an inducement to merely return to dialogue."

A new type of anti-aircraft missile, developed by North Korea's Academy of Defence Science, is seen in this photo released by the Korean Central News Agency, Oct. 1. The North test-fired it the previous day, according to the agency. Korea Times file
A new type of anti-aircraft missile, developed by North Korea's Academy of Defence Science, is seen in this photo released by the Korean Central News Agency, Oct. 1. The North test-fired it the previous day, according to the agency. Korea Times file

Soo Kim said the time seemed far from ripe to relax sanctions on North Korea based on its recent hostile acts, highlighted by its four missile launches in September, and any possible concession may aggravate the situation.

"Sanctions relief may mark a significant step in the wrong direction ― certainly not in the way of sending the North Koreans a clear message about the consequences of their actions ― so we would hope that this measure would not be pursued frivolously," she said.

"Missile testing has resumed, nuclear weapons development is still ongoing, Kim has shown very little indications that he's willing to forgo his hostile behavior and policies to improve relations with the U.S. and South Korea. To yield more concessions at this point would simply aid and abet the regime's provocative proclivities and convey to Kim Jong-un that what he's doing is quite effective, and he should continue on this path."

Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations at King's College London, said South Korea and the U.S. may find an intermediate point over the issue ― although it depends on future actions by the Kim regime.

"I think that full implementation can also involve waivers, for example, for humanitarian reasons. So I think that Seoul and Washington can find a middle ground between waivers that aren't for humanitarian reasons, which could then be removed if necessary, and full application of sanctions," Pacheco Pardo said, adding that the Biden administration may consider waivers and exemptions, especially because they can be removed and sanctions re-imposed.

"But I think that this would be very difficult to do politically as long as North Korea continues to conduct missile tests. So Pyongyang would need to stop its tests, and then the U.S. may consider exemptions."


Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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