SEOUL — South Korea said on Wednesday 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 denuclearizes.
South Korea’s president, 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 honor United Nations sanctions and refrain from significant economic cooperation with the North unless it starts denuclearizing.
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 denuclearization. Her comments did not apply to the broad sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council.
“We are reviewing it with related government agencies,” 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 denuclearizes. 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, Kim Jong Un, on Sunday, 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, 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. 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 apologizes.
Some South Korean sanctions have already begun easing under Moon, including a ban on travel to North Korea. Before the 2010 embargo was imposed, South Korea rivaled China as among North Korea’s biggest trading partners. Now, North Korea depends on China for almost all of its external trade.