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[Lee Jae-min] Start small, think big on cooperation with NK

Maybe it was just an honest mistake. A typical “rules of origin” confusion or infraction. Origin faking or laundering is not new to customs officials at the border, so importers may have believed that the coal shipments really originated from Russia. The low price and unusual loading port (Kholmsk, Sakhalin) may not have been sufficient to raise a red flag for the importers and the government.

Coal arrived at Korean ports and was put into the stream of commerce. This took place last October.

What happened afterward, however, raises a question. It was as early as Jan. 26 that major foreign newspapers started to report the source of the coal as North Korea. Seven months after the reports and 10 months after the transshipments, a government investigation is still ongoing. A rather unusually long investigation for such technical issues as rules of origin confirmation and infraction.

More so given the gravity of the issue: a potential violation of the UN Security Council resolutions -- if confirmed, these incidents contravene UNSC resolutions 2371 and 2397 of last year -- and possibly a unilateral sanction of entities involved by other states. Of utmost relevance is criticism over South Korea possibly breaking ranks with other countries on the UN sanctions front.

One can only guess why it is taking such a long time. There may have been unknown technical difficulties, or perhaps Seoul has been fearing it would ruin the party -- the Winter Olympics and the mood of detente.

In any event, putting this into perspective, there is an important lesson to learn from the incident. It reminds us how easy it is to be implicated in North Korean trade and suddenly in violation of UNSC resolutions. The coal scandal has brought up an elephant in the room: South-North economic cooperation is pivotal in engaging the North, but, sadly, inter-Korean economic cooperation projects can barely move forward under the present UN sanctions.

Indeed, exceptions can be secured. But they have been so far issued for one-time, specific-purpose encounters, such as military hotline recovery or inter-Korea delegation visits. Exceptions for general and broad economic interaction will be in a different league altogether.

Which again brings us to the importance of the “one step at a time” approach. Whether we like it or not, the peace process will be a long process. Economic cooperation will be no different. There are rules to be followed and procedures to be cleared. Of course, our national enthusiasm for peace and unification is unquestionable and unwavering. Unfortunately, enthusiasm is not a panacea to all the problems and challenges ahead. Persuasion is necessary. But preaching to other states about our enthusiasm, even in violation of the agreed rules, may only complicate the problem.

Peace can take root and continue only if denuclearization is guaranteed. At least that is what we have believed so far and that is what Korea has explained its official position to be. If so, the UNSC resolutions play a critical role to quicken the process. Cooperating with other countries is important, and maintaining their trust is ever more important.

Yes, it is time to shake things up and try something new. We are in need of a turnaround. But that does not mean that UNSC resolutions are a cumbrance to inter-Korea economic cooperation, or that sanctions should cease instantly. We should view this as a process -- the first part of a long process. For instance, to maintain the momentum, some pilot programs may be developed with specific exceptions approved from the UNSC. Commensurate with the progress of denuclearization, exceptions can be diversified and expanded.

As I wrote last time, an official announcement of the “termination” of the Korean War would be meaningful as the starting point of a long process to explore and negotiate a peace regime. In the interim, the present regime can remain intact. For economic cooperation, it is also a process: Going forward one step at a time under the consensus of the international community is critical to ultimate success. As they say, let’s start small, and think big. 

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.