On October 10, 2018, Kang Kyung-wha, the South Korean foreign minister, during parliamentary investigations into the activities of her ministry, stated that Seoul is looking at the possibility of lifting the unilateral sanctions that were imposed on North Korea on May 24, 2010 in response to the sinking of the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan in the Yellow Sea. She added that lifting the sanctions could be an important symbolic step.
Those sanctions were imposed following an announcement by Lee Myung-bak, the then president, that the corvette had been torpedoed by a North Korean submarine, although there were many criticisms of this official version, and the report by the Russian specialists who were sent to investigate the incident by Dimitry Medvedev, who was president of Russia at the time, is still classified. The sanctions prohibit South Korea from trading with North Korea or investing in its economy, restrict South Koreans from communicating North Koreans, and prohibit them from visiting North Korea, except for visits to the Kaesong Industrial Park.
The possible lifting of the sanctions imposed on May 24, 2010 is an issue that has been raised several times, and is all the more relevant now, given the fact that, following a change in leadership and a series of scandals related to the work of the South Korean intelligence serves, the tragedy is now being presented, quite openly, in rather different terms: “the corvette sank as a result of an explosion caused either by a North Korean torpedo attack or following a collision with an underwater mine.” That latter version, as this author has been able to confirm, is consistent with the findings of the Russian investigation into the incident, and exonerates North Korea of all blame.
In view of the current improvement in relations between North and South Korea, this issue is attracting more attention: it is true that these are unilateral sanctions that Seoul is able to impose or lift without consulting any other country, but, nevertheless, lifting these sanctions would also serve as a precedent. After all, the prohibitions imposed in 2010 have a lot in common with the more recently imposed international sanctions.
In fact, as the present author has written in more than one article, the official version of the sinking was not just cobbled together, but was made up out of whole cloth, and the conclusions of the Russian specialists revealed a very different picture: that the corvette had grounded in shallow water and, in an attempt to free itself, the ship’s propeller got entangled with fishing nets, which brought it into contact with a mine from the Korean war era which was caught up in those same nets. Based on these documents Moon Jae-in could lift the sanctions, not as a gesture of good will, but in view of the results of a new investigation, which would have the added advantage of exposing his political rivals’ falsification of evidence.
It is hardly surprising that the foreign minister’s statement caused so much discussion, especially after members of parliament from the conservative opposition asked her if it was true that she had had a very difficult telephone conversation with a “livid” US Secretary of State, who was highly critical of the military pact between the two Koreas. That conversation was reported by a number of media sources, including the Japanese Nihon Keizai Shimbun.
Kang Kyung-wha answered that it was true, and that Mike Pompeo had had “a lot of questions, as he had not been properly informed”. When one of the deputies asked whether South Korea and the USA had done enough to share information on the military pact in advance, she replied that “there was definitely adequate consultation”.
Defending herself against opposition attacks, she said that the talks on lifting the sanctions had not yet reached the stage of discussions between the two countries’ ministers. Nevertheless, that same evening Donald Trump commented on the discussion in the South Korean parliament. In answer to questions from journalists, the US president said: “They won’t do it without our approval. They do nothing without our approval.”
Donald Trump also called on the USA’s allies to support the sanctions against North Korea until its denuclearization is complete, as part of his government’s policy of exerting “maximum pressure”.
The next day, on October 11, the South Korean Minister of Reunification, Cho Myung-gyun, also addressing journalists, said that the South Korean government was not considering lifting the sanctions imposed on May 24, 2010. Without excluding the possibility of greater flexibility in relation to Pyongyang, in view of the improvement in relations between the two Koreas, the minister described the sanctions as an essential measure.
On the same day a spokesperson for the US Department of State once again stated that the lifting of the sanctions against North Korea must be accompanied with the latter’s denuclearization, and that the sooner this happened, the sooner the sanctions could be lifted. He added that Seoul and Washington would focus on cooperating closely with each other to ensure they shared a single policy in relation to North Korea.
On October 15, another spokesperson for the US Department of State repeated that Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, had recently confirmed that the issue of improving relations between North and South Korea could not be separated from that of solving the North Korean nuclear problem. The agreements concluded between Seoul and Pyongyang therefore do not rule out the application of sanctions.
Such comments provoked a lot of concern amongst the South Korean public, including “fears about the state of the country’s cooperation with the USA”, and the media hastily tried to calm things down by claiming that the “current situation is due to misunderstandings within the American government”.
But this failed to reassure the public. One main reason for the concern was that the sanctions in question were not internationally approved sanctions related to North Korea’s nuclear program, but purely unilateral sanctions related to the sinking of the corvette. Chung-in Moon, special presidential advisor on national security, who frequently expresses strong opinions, voiced the public’s concerns. In his view, South Korea is an independent country and its decisions do not need any foreign approval. The relations between South Korea and the USA are those of two sovereign states, and that instead of using the word “approval” he should have talked about “consultation and consensus”. Of course, perhaps Donald Trump was just being impulsive, and that is what he meant.
Moving on from the angry mood in South Korea, let us have a look at the sanctions, which are getting stricter. After the stall in the talks between North Korea and the USA, the latter imposed several rounds of sanctions, including measures directed at organizations and individuals from other countries who were engaged in unauthorized dealings with North Korea.
On October 4 the US Treasury Department announced that one legal entity and three individuals – one of whom was from North Korea – had been added to the list of persons covered by the sanctions. The sanctions were extended to the Turkish company Sia Falcon International Group, and two of its officers, both Turkish citizens. It is alleged that they had attempted to get round the sanctions and deliver luxury goods and arms to North Korea. Sanctions have also been imposed on Ri Song Un, a member of staff at North Korea’s embassy in Mongolia, who was also involved in that scheme.
There are reports that US Department of State has, in the last few weeks, refused requests from at least five American humanitarian NGOs for special travel passports, as it fears that Pyongyang may somehow use the humanitarian aid to help it develop its nuclear and missile programs.
On October 15, 2018, the US Treasury Department added a statement to the web page of its Office of Foreign Assets Control, warning about the risk of secondary sanctions, which might be imposed on third parties and companies doing business with North Korea. That warning, in bold type, discourages people from working with any sanctioned persons or entities. It is the first warning of this type to be published so that anyone can read it.
As for relations between the USA and South Korea, both parties are aware of their differences concerning the creation of the single liaison office in Kaesong and the proposal to link the North and South Korean railway systems, and it was the UN command which refused a special train that was to inspect the North Korean railway track permission to cross the border.
The Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta has reported, citing sources in South Korean banking organizations and the country’s parliament, that immediately after the summit between North and South Korea, held on September 20-21, representatives of the US Treasury made telephone calls to all South Korean banks who had in some way or other taken part in the discussion of possible joint projects with North Korea, or had helped South Korea to finance and support such projects. American specialists in the collection of financial information, sanctions enforcement, and the fight to prevent the financing of terrorism questioned the South Korean bankers on their plans to work with North Korea and reminded them that they were under a strict obligation to comply with the sanctions. This was an unusual step: “requests” of this type are normally addressed to bankers through diplomatic channels, rather than directly.
The Chosun Ilbo has also reported that hundreds of South Korean citizens have been included on the list of persons (from 50 different countries, including Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and Afghanistan) who must undergo an extra, highly rigorous, stage of investigation if they wish to visit relatives in US military bases in Japan.
As the radio station Voice of America reported on October 5, a total of 466 sanctions, past and present, have been imposed on North Korea, and 236 of these have been imposed on individuals and legal entities in under two years by the Trump administration: 124 in 2017, and 122 in 2018.
Despite the fact that no sanctions were imposed on North Korea during the period of warm dialogue between April and July, a total of eight rounds of sanctions have been imposed this year: one each in January and February, and then six rounds of sanctions between the end of August and the present day.
In addition third countries have been threatened with a “secondary boycott” if they seek to avoid the sanctions and do business with North Korea. Many countries and individuals from third countries, including Russia and China, have been placed on the sanctions list.
Unsurprisingly, China has consistently been critical of this policy. For example, Kim Song, the North Korean ambassador to the UN, addressing a meeting of the Second Committee of the UN General Assembly on October 9, stated that the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council seriously infringed on North Korean citizens’ rights to life and development. Kim Song emphasized that the sanctions prevented the import of medicines and X-ray equipment – which North Korea’s women and children were in dire need of – and that the country was having great difficulty in meeting its sustainable development goals and was still in a state of crisis, despite the rapid changes on the Korean peninsula. On October 12, during a meeting of the sixth committee, Kim In-chol, a secretary at the North Korean mission to the UN, called the UN command in Korea a “monster” and called for its dissolution. He claimed that the actions of the UN Command are in breach of the UN charter and have nothing in common with the actions of the UN.
Comments published on October 21 in Rodong Sinmun, the official North Korean newspaper, struck a similar note: North Korea is well aware of the “difficult position the White House is in during the run up to the November mid-term elections to the US Congress” and realizes that “the political situation in the USA is highly complex.” Nevertheless the USA needs to understand one thing: if there is any inconsistency between the American statements made during the talks in Pyongyang and the rhetoric that is now coming out of Washington, then the tower of mutual trust, constructed with so much effort, may come crashing down in a moment.” America needs to listen to the views of the international community. “In UN sessions, Russia has declared that sanctions cannot be a replacement for diplomacy, and that it is against putting pressure on North Korea, and China has warned that actions imposed exclusively from a position of strength may lead to a tragic result.”
To conclude, the USA has the ability, at any moment, to influence the course of the dialogue between North and South Korea, simply by determining whether any given step is permitted by the sanctions.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”