Several times, when writing about what President Moon Jae-in could have done to develop inter-Korean dialogue, this author has outlined that a real step, and not just a ceremonial one, would be the lifting of wide-ranging unilateral sanctions imposed on 24 May 2010 by Lee Myung-bak’s government after South Korea’s implication of the DPRK in the sinking of the Cheonan corvette. We have written several times about this official version of events, which contains so many inconsistencies as to be not just flimsy, but paper-thin.
Nevertheless, when, during this year’s ceremony to commemorate the tragedy, the mother of one of the victims approached the president and asked whether the new government has a new view on who is responsible for the sinking of the corvette, Moon Jae-in answered for the whole country to hear: there is no change, even a little, in the government’s official position.
Then, all of a sudden, on 20 May, Unification Ministry Spokesman Yoh Sang-key announced that the sanctions package no longer poses any obstacle to inter-Korean exchanges.
To be precise, Yoh Sang-key told a regular press briefing that “previous governments have taken a flexible approach and allowed exceptions,” and that “a large part of the sanctions has virtually lost its effect.” Therefore “our government does not see those May 24 Measures as a hindrance to our push for exchange and cooperation with the North,” and “will continue to make efforts to expand space in inter-Korean relations and establish genuine peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
This wasn’t followed by any reprimands from Washington. In response to the announcement, a US State Department representative told Voice of America that Washington supports inter-Korean cooperation.
Against this backdrop, some optimists and supporters of the Republic’s current government have hailed, at long last, the end of sanctions and the beginning of a new era of North-South relations.
But is this true? The very same day, not Yoh Song-key, but Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul himself stated that the announcement of the sanctions imposed against the DPRK after the 2010 sinking of the South Korean warship having lost their effect does NOT mean that Seoul is considering the possibility of lifting them. A day later, Yoh Sang-key said the same thing – that the government never mentioned the possibility of lifting the sanctions.
So, let’s take a closer look at the issue.
It is hard to call Yoh San-key a democrat; the author has encountered him at several international conferences, where he has consistently advocated a conservative approach. This line, then, is clearly not his personal initiative. So what could have prompted such a statement?
It is no secret that inter-Korean dialogue has reached a deadlock, primarily due to South Korean bureaucracy, whose mass of impediments have managed to slow down even issues unrelated to sanctions. It is also an open secret that Myung turned out to be a second-rate middleman who didn’t so much work on dialogue as run back and forth telling each side what the other wanted, extolling his own diplomatic capabilities along the way.
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul has several times said that the government is contemplating various ways to move forward stalled inter-Korean relations by bolstering exchange and cooperation in areas not subject to sanctions, and the government has pushed to expand cross-border cooperation as part of efforts to advance inter-Korean ties. However, the North has long since stopped responding to “bold initiatives” and proposals to hold commemorative events filled with deep symbolism but no practical use.
It is enough to recall how the government was afraid to supply the DPRK with medicines and face masks, fearing that it would provoke a negative reaction at home against the backdrop of the country’s internal deficit.
It is also no secret that, formally, the sanctions forbid any inter-Korean exchange, and now overlap in many areas with sanctions imposed much later by the US and UN. However, this overlap is a recent phenomenon, and Seoul has carefully “relaxed” the sanctions in the past when necessary. When there has been no such necessity, Seoul has had every reason to stop any inappropriate or mistimed initiative in its tracks.
When the North sent its delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in February 2018, the South Korean government maintained the sanctions, but made a one-off exception.
In October 2018, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha announced that the government was considering lifting the sanctions, but, against a backdrop of rising criticism from conservative opposition parties, then-Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon announced the next day that the government had no plans to lift them.
On the sanctions’ ninth anniversary in spring 2019, the Unification Ministry announced that the lifting of sanctions should be reconsidered in light of inter-Korean relations and sanctions from the international community against the Kim Jong-un regime. Talk about ambiguous wording! Moreover, in May 2019 a Unification Ministry spokesperson said: “We can be flexible in reassessing our own 2010 sanctions within the framework of the international sanctions on North Korea, but they still remain effective.”
This is why the Korea Times has rightly asked the question of whether the sanctions will be officially lifted (and the author could even have asked on what grounds), because while announcements that sanctions are no longer an obstacle are one thing, the legal conclusion of that statement is quite another. If the sanctions have lost their effect, then why not lift them officially instead of prevaricating? It will not be easy for Moon Jae-in’s administration to take such a decisive step, because a lifting of the sanctions could provoke a strong political backlash from conservatives, and the international community firmly maintains its sanctions against Pyongyang.
As noted in the conservative Chosun Ilbo, nobody has ever spoken of lifting the sanctions because North Korea has never apologized for the attack or even acknowledged it. When the North Korean delegation arrived at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018, the government made clear that it was lifting the sanctions only on a “temporary and exceptional” basis.
What to make of all this? There has been no official lifting of sanctions and there is none forthcoming, just as there has been no change to the official version of the North’s involvement. What we see is a feeble attempt to say that, since the sanctions have been superseded by more serious ones and exceptions have been made to them several times, they have essentially lost their effect. This is being done in a desperate attempt to somehow interest the North in an imitation of inter-Korean dialogue.
What it sounds more like is an admission that the sanctions in question have not achieved their goal. They themselves did not contribute to the crisis in the DPRK in any way, and have been temporarily weakened with changes to the general line.
This most recent statement, then, has no legal power whatsoever. Yoh Sang-key has said that the sanctions are not an obstacle, but the minister quickly added that they will not be lifted. This is simply the most recent fluctuation of the political conjuncture, and the sanctions’ existence will suddenly be remembered again when required.
A real step forward would be a recognition that the basis for the sanctions was groundless, but Seoul will not go that far. As such, this can be perceived as an attempt to somehow interest the North, and it is unclear to what extent the North will buy it.
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”.