South Korea wants to lift sanctions on North Korea. That could kill Trump's nuclear plan.
For years, South Korea has imposed punishing economic sanctions on its neighbor, North Korea. But on Wednesday, South Korea signaled itâs willing to lift some of those sanctions. If it does so, itâs a growing sign that the US-led campaign to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear arsenal is falling apart.
According to South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung- wha, Seoul may consider lifting some sanctions to incentivize North Korea to stop developing its nuclear program. South Korea has placed financial penalties on the North, in part because of the improving nuclear program and also because North Korea killed 46 South Korean sailors in 2010.
Kang somewhat walked back her comments later in the day.
âThe issue of lifting sanctions should be reviewed considering the situation of inter-Korean relations as a whole,â she told lawmakers.
However, Kang said nothing about nixing the broad financial penalties imposed on North Korea by the United Nations. But many of Seoulâs sanctions on Pyongyang overlap with the UN ones, South Korean officials told the New York Times on Wednesday, so reversing them would be more of a symbolic gesture.
As of now, itâs unclear if South Korea will actually act. But if it does, this move could actually harm the countryâs relationship with the US in two ways.
First, it w ould underscore a massive rupture in how America and South Korea approach ending North Koreaâs nuclear program. The Trump administration wants to keep squeezing Pyongyang financially as part of its âmaximum pressureâ campaign, so that it has no choice to but to give up nuclear development, even as President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un share diplomatic niceties.
And second, the move could more broadly lead to a break in Washington-Seoul ties. One of North Koreaâs greatest goals is to weaken the decades-long bond between the US and South Korea. If both countries donât form a united front, it could cause political tension.
The US, for example, may not see South Korea as a trustworthy partner if it breaks ranks. South Korean President Moon Jae-inâs administration, meanwhile, might view Trumpâs team as overly aggressive against North Korea and continue on its more dovish path without American support.
Thera are already signs of a sp lit. Kang told South Korean lawmakers on Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is upset with the military pact Seoul and Pyongyang made in September. It was a rare admission of the small-yet-widening rift between the US and South Korea.
So South Koreaâs announcement about potentially lifting sanctions probably makes North Korea happy for a variety of reasons.
âKim Jong Un has masterfully followed the North Korean playbook to try and drive a wedge between the US and South Korea,â Robert Manning, a Koreas expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, told me. âThis means that US and South Korean leverage is eroding and it would be extremely difficult to reimpose maximum pressure.â
South Korean progressives have acted like this before
Sung-Yoon Lee, a Koreas expert at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, told me this is how South Korea has previously dealt with sanctions toward North Korea.
âSouth Korea views itself an exception to international law and norms,â he said. âWhat [South Korean Foreign Minister] Kang said, as clumsy and undiplomatic as it was, was not revelatory.â Rather, he said, Seoul finds ways to flow money into North Korea despite crushing sanctions â" thereby helping Kimâs regime in the process.
Hereâs just one example: Despite myriad sanctions on Pyongyang, Seoul gave $8 billion in aid to its northern neighbor from 1998 to 2008. About half of that money came from former South Korean President Roh Moo Hyunâs administration from 2003 to 2008, Lee told me.
Roh, a South Korean progressive who advocated for closer ties to North Korea as part the so-called âSunshine Policy,â was the current President Moonâs boss. South Korean conservatives, on the other hand, prefer a harder-line approach toward Pyongyang.
It seems Moon is continuing a longstanding progressive policy of trying to improve bilateral ties between Koreas. It hasnât worked yet â" and itâ s unclear if it will work now.
âMaximum pressureâ is failing
Even before Seoulâs announcement, Trumpâs âmaximum pressureâ campaign â" isolating North Korea economically and diplomatically until it dismantles its nuclear program â"has started to crumble.
Trump met with Kim, North Koreaâs somewhat reclusive leader, in June in Singapore. Thatâs led to months of diplomacy between the two countries during which both leaders âfell in love,â according to Trump.
That improved relationship, in part, has led the US to soften its hardline approach toward North Korea. Thatâs given China and Russia, two of North Koreaâs top allies, the space to relax their sanctions and kick-start trade with Pyongyang, giving North Korea an economic lifeline.
And on Wednesday, Beijing said Moscow and Pyongyang would soon advocate for removing some of the UN sanctions on North Korea. They must sense an opportunity to get Pyongyang a little relief.< /p>
North Koreaâs economy is by no means free of pressures, and Washington still says it wants to see the end of Pyongyangâs nuclear program soon before lifting any sanctions. But the economic pain plan appears near death â" and South Korea may soon put the final nail in the coffin.
In this Storystream
North Korean nuclear program causes new tensions with US
- South Korea wants to lift sanctions on North Korea. That could kill Trumpâs nuclear plan.
- Why North Koreaâs latest nuclear concession isnât one at all
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