Remarks made by Foreign Affairs Minister Kang Kyung-wha have led to signs of frictions in South Korea-U.S. relationship as well as international cooperation on North Korea policy. This Wednesday at the National Assembly, she implied a possibility of lifting measures taken by the South Korean government on May 24, 2010 against North Korea. Asked regarding her remarks, U.S. President Donald Trump answered, “Well, they won’t do it without our approval,” while reiterating the impossibility of lifting the sanctions three times.
His word choice of "approval" is diplomatically inappropriate, seen as an obvious faux pas. However, the question asked by a U.S. reporter to the president was somewhat vague, not articulating the type of sanctions – the May 24 measures or the sanctions by the United Nations Security Council. The former one is an independent act by the South Korean government, which is never subject to approval of the U.S. government while lessening the latter depends on approval at the U.N. level.
Technically saying, the lifting of the May 24 measures, such as the suspension of inter-Korean trade and North Korea assistance projects and the prohibition of new investment in North Korea, is not a necessary step to be taken as their key parts are all included in the U.N. sanctions. Nevertheless, it is too early to mention a possibility of lifting them at this time from a perspective of national standing even when the North has yet to apologize for its sneak submarine attack on the Cheonan warship that killed some 46 South Korean seamen. Furthermore, if the sanctions in question are lessened, it will end up with few practical interests, frictions among South Koreans and a weakened international cooperation.
Even as Washington is well aware of the situation, the U.S. State Department as well as President Trump has rebutted regarding the possibility of lifting sanctions, which is seen as a representation of Washington’s concerns and dissatisfaction about Seoul’s attitude. The basis for denuclearization is a strong South Korea-U.S. relationship. However, there has been a gap between the two allies in terms of smuggled North Korean coal imports, the resumption of the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, and the construction plan of the inter-Korean railways. There have recently been concerns and criticisms raised within the United States. Critics have mentioned a possibility that South Korea will move to the opposite side in a situation where China and Russia explicitly request a lessening of North Korea sanctions and call for a North Korea-China-Russia coalition.
At this critical juncture, Minister Kang mentioned a possible lifting of the May 24 sanctions, which only is a failed diplomatic strategy aside from discussing whether to support the idea. There should have been full explanations and sufficient discussions with Washington and the United Nations. if the May 24 measures are thought to be meaningless, which, thus, may be lifted. The foreign affairs minister is supposed to set and release strategies based on a comprehensive understanding of the relationships with Washington and the United Nations. However, she showed her amateurism at the National Assembly by suggesting a possible lifting but later changing her words.
There is also a stark gap between Washington and Seoul in terms of the inter-Korean agreement on military affairs during the inter-Korean summits in Pyongyang. It is problematic that the South agreed on critical issues that can seriously threaten security interests regarding the flight-banned area around the military demarcation line. What’s worse, the Foreign Affairs Ministry has not successfully earned Washington’s support and understanding of the results of the latest inter-Korean summit, which in turn caused U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to express “discontent.” It is important at this time to minimize vainly ineffective actions and facilitate denuclearization by reinventing foreign affairs and diplomacy including the minister.