A representative of the South Korean Ministry of Unification said Friday, “Our policy with regard to North Korea comes under our sovereignty,” in response to the U.S.’ concerns over the South Korean government pursuing individual tours to North Korea, adding that the government will seek “inter-Korean cooperation in a self-directed and independent fashion.” It is a direct rebuttal to U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris' comment that it should be discussed with the U.S. government to avoid misunderstandings. The Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs of the South Korean Foreign Ministry even said during his visit to Washington D.C., “The U.S. fundamentally respects decisions made by South Korea as a sovereign country.”
The South Korean government appears to be heavily pushing inter-Korean cooperation projects, including individual tours, in the New Year. Since South Korean President Moon Jae-in revealed his plan for independent cooperation with North Korea during his New Year’s speech and press conference, the government even seems unconcerned about the international community’s concerns over the violations of sanctions against North Korea. As Presidential Chief of Staff Noh Young-min even said, “Individual visits to North Korea are not part of the U.N. sanctions against North Korea and can be made at any time.” The government seems anxious to bear the unavoidable controversies.
The South Korean government says it will consider the option to allow visits to North Korea through a third country just with a visa, not a letter of invitation issued by the North Korean authorities. The measure to quickly approve visits to the North through the inter-Korea liaison office is often mentioned as well. With such policies in place, South Korean people can visit the North on package tours offered by Chinese travel agencies. However, it is unclear whether North Korea will issue visas and welcome South Koreans. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that incidents like the murder of a South Korean tourist in Mount Kumgang will not be repeated without effective safety measures.
The potential violations of the North Korean sanctions is another big hurdle. U.S. dollars and other belongings that tourists may bring with them to North Korea are highly likely to be considered as violations of the sanctions. Even when South Korea’s national football team visited the North last year, an exemption process from the sanctions was needed to take laptops into the country. This led to Ambassador Harris to express concerns, which cannot be just ignored while pushing ahead. The ruling Democratic Party criticized the ambassador’s direct comment saying, “Is he the Governor-General of Korea back in the Japanese colonial period? Isn’t he interfering in domestic affairs?” but such reactions are also exaggerated.
The South Korean government’s efforts to expand its scope of independence are not incomprehensible as inter-Korean conversations, as well as the U.S.-North Korea talks, have suspended. However, the solution that the government found is the controversial tourism business, which the Kim Jong Un regime holds onto as a way out from the sanctions. In addition, the government says it is “the matter of a sovereign country’s decisions” as if it is willing to risk the international community’s concerns and a crack in its alliance with the U.S. Such an attitude of the government only reminds of North Korea’s shadow criticizing the South’s actions as “pathetic and disgraceful behavior of pro-U.S. submission.”