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[Editorial] In step with the world

South Korea needs to slow the pace of improving ties with NK

The decision of South Korea and the US to launch a working group on North Korea reflects Washington’s concerns about the pace of Seoul’s efforts to improve ties with Pyongyang in the absence of a substantial progress in denuclearizing the North.

The announcement in Washington of the decision on the working group came after the US Treasury Department contacted South Korean conglomerates to inquire about their inter-Korean businesses and asked major banks to observe the international sanctions on the North.

These latest developments indicate that the working group is being launched at the request of the US side, which is hardly surprising in view of what happed recently.

Most of all, the US is not rushing to resolve the issue while South Korea is hurrying to improve ties with the North at the risk of creating cracks in the sanctions on the North and in its alliance with Washington.

The most recent palpable sign of the US not rushing to achieve denuclearization came from Trump. He said in a campaign rally early this week that he did not care how long talks with North Korea took, as long as there were no nuclear or missile tests.

The US position reflects the reality that it would be difficult to push the North to take substantial denuclearization steps any time soon, not least before the US midterm elections, for which the Trump administration needs to sell its North Korea policy as a major foreign policy achievement.

Indeed, in his campaign speeches, Trump kept praising his administration for having achieved in only four months what previous administrations failed to do over the past 70 years.

He is also touting some of concessions the North has made, including the North’s showcase destruction of nuclear and missile testing sites, release of American captives and repatriation of remains of US soldiers killed in the Korean War. He often says he prevented another war with the North.

What’s obvious is that the US is maintaining the harshest-ever sanctions on the North. This contrasts with Trump’s mild attitude toward North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with whom he even said he fell in love.

In fact, the US is tightening the reins. Last week, the US called on the United Nations to fully comply with sanctions on North Korea until the regime gives up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

The US made the call in a statement welcoming a UN panel’s decision to deflag and ban port entry to three vessels suspected of making illegal transfers of refined petroleum to North Korean ships. Officials said the US has deployed aircraft and surface vessels to detect and disrupt the illicit maritime activities.

Also last week, the US sanctioned two Singapore-based firms and an individual over their alleged money laundering on North Korea’s behalf. All these show that the US, seeking a long-term solution to the North Korean problem, will continue to rein in the North until substantial progress in denuclearization is made.

A cause for concern is that none other than South Korea, whose alliance with the US is key to a resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem, is pushing in a different direction.

One prime example is the controversial ratification by President Moon Jae-in of the agreements he made with Kim in Pyongyang last month. The Pyongyang Declaration and inter-Korean agreements call for broader inter-Korean cooperation and measures to reduce military tensions, and Moon’s unilateral ratification of them have raised worries in both South Korea and the US over his impatience in appeasing the North.

Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon, answering a lawmaker’s question about the plan to connect inter-Korean roads and railways, admitted that there were areas where the South and the US had different positions.

Indeed, an increasing number of US experts on North Korea and media raised alarms over the gaps emerging between South Korea and the US. For instance, Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that US officials were “very, very concerned or even angry” about President Moon’s North Korea policies.

The US push for the joint working group should serve as a loud wake-up call for the Moon administration to be patient in improving ties with the North in the absence of progress in denuclearization.