South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon on Thursday contradicted controversial statements made by the foreign minister to parliament the previous day and said there are no plans to lift sanctions against North Korea imposed after the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan in 2010.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told lawmakers on Wednesday sanctions might be lifted in a largely symbolic act to reward North Korea for improved relations over the past year. South Korean conservatives angrily rejected the idea of lifting sanctions before North Korea apologizes for sinking the Cheonan and killing 46 of its crew. Some were concerned even a symbolic act of sanctions relief would anger the United States, which wants full pressure maintained against Pyongyang until irreversible denuclearization has been achieved.
Kang quickly backtracked on her remarks. Unification Minister Cho stepped forward on Thursday to make it clear no sanctions relief will be considered until there is “action regarding the issue of the Cheonan warship.”
A secondary controversy rumbled through Seoul when U.S. President Donald Trump was asked about Kang’s discussion of unilateral sanctions relief.
“They won’t do it without our approval. They do nothing without our approval,” Trump replied, to the displeasure of South Korean lawmakers who bristled at the idea they require “approval” from the United States before taking action.
One opposition lawmaker called Trump’s language “strong and insulting,” highlighting tensions between U.S. policymakers who fear South Korea is moving too quickly on rapprochement with North Korea, and South Koreans uncomfortable with outsiders controlling diplomacy on the peninsula.
One of Washington’s major concerns is pressure from China and Russia to grant sanctions concessions to North Korea as a reward for the steps it has already taken toward denuclearization. Pyongyang’s long history of pocketing concessions and then walking back whatever supposedly encouraging steps it has taken made the Trump administration determined to secure major, irreversible steps toward dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program before any relief is granted.
The administration is understandably nervous about South Korea peeling away from the international coalition and weakening sanctions as a result of North Korea’s diplomatic “charm offensive.”
Cho added his government is looking at a variety of measures to keep diplomatic momentum with North Korea going: “Still, in seeking inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation and amid improving relations between the two Koreas, we have been taking measures in a flexible manner.”
Cho looked forward to “a certain amount of progress in the second summit between North Korea and the U.S.,” by which he meant the as-yet unscheduled second meeting between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump.
“When it comes to the results, there could be different expectations so we are preparing for all possible scenarios to keep inter-Korean relations, exchanges and cooperation going,” he said.
Cho was guardedly optimistic North Korea is “moving to cooperate with the international community,” describing a genuine change in attitude he has detected during his own trips across the border.