South Korea lifting sanctions on the North?

The recent meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim Jung-un went pretty well by most accounts, with the two sides reaching an agreement to hold a second summit with Donald Trump in the near future. But for all the good intentions and positive talking points, we still don’t seem to be any closer to significant denuclearization on the part of Kim. That means that U.S. sanctions on the country remain in force while the details are being worked out.

The same can’t be said – at least at first glance – for South Korea. President Moon Jae-in has been pushing for much more rapid rapprochement with the North, and this week he began discussions to reduce or remove some South Korean sanctions as a sign of good will. (Associated Press)

Seoul is considering lifting some of its unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang to create more momentum for diplomacy aimed at improving relations and defusing the nuclear crisis, South Korea’s foreign minister said Wednesday.

During a parliamentary audit of her ministry, Kang Kyung-wha said the government is reviewing whether to lift sanctions South Korea imposed on the North in 2010 following a deadly attack on a warship that killed 45 South Korean sailors.

Seoul then effectively shut down all cross-border economic cooperation except for a joint factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, which was shuttered in February 2016 after a North Korean nuclear test and long-range rocket launch.

At first glance, this doesn’t look like good news as far as the American position is concerned. The only way to ensure that Kim is motivated to actually make good on his promises is to keep up the pressure. If he begins to feel more comfortable and secure, there’s little to stop him from going back to his old ways and storming out of the next meeting. After that, it probably wouldn’t be long until the nuke testing began again in earnest.

China has already been pushing to have some of their own sanctions lifted, so having our South Korean allies follow suit could wind up being counterproductive. But as it turns out, even if Moon Jae-in carried through it may not have much of an impact either way. The specific sanctions being discussed are redundant because they mirror U.S.-led international sanctions which the South Koreans would still be obligated to enforce.

So this move is more of an olive branch without much real fruit on it. It probably gives Kim a headline to show his people back home that he’s delivering the goods and further cements the new alliance he and Moon Jae-in are trying to forge. If it ends up spreading peace between the two Koreas while not significantly lowering Kim’s incentive to denuclearize, it might turn out to be a positive development after all.