President Moon Jae-in’s government is seeking ways to circumvent international sanctions against North Korea to reopen an inter-Korean industrial park. The Kaesong industrial complex north of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas was shut down in February 2016 after Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test.
In a lecture to a group of ruling party lawmakers on Friday, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha raised the need to study whether it would be possible to resolve the matter in a way that does not involve large payments of cash. She was apparently indicating the government was looking for ways to bypass a UN Security Council resolution imposing a ban on bulk cash payments that could be channeled into the North’s nuclear weapons program to reopen the industrial complex.
Kang’s remarks came a day after Moon said in a news conference that hurdles had been cleared with Pyongyang to resuming the industrial complex and a tour program to Mount Kumgang in the North, pledging to cooperate with the international community, including the US, toward the “early solution of the remaining issue of international sanctions.” The tour program has been suspended since a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier for allegedly trespassing into an off-limits area in July 2008.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in his New Year’s Day address, expressed his willingness to reopen the industrial complex and restart the tour program “without any preconditions or rewards in consideration of southern brethren’s wishes.”
Moon seemed to refer to this in declaring that hurdles to resuming the stalled inter-Korean projects had been cleared with the North.
If so, he chimed in with the North’s unreasonable stance.
Pyongyang should have asked for the resumption of the projects after accepting responsibility for the events that led to their suspension. It is an absurd claim that the North is willing to reopen the industrial park and restart the tour program for the benefit of the South.
Moon’s welcoming of the North’s “will to resume (the suspended projects) without conditions and rewards” hampers the proper establishment of inter-Korean relations.
In his news conference last week, Moon urged North Korea to take more concrete steps toward denuclearization to relieve itself of international sanctions, while stressing the importance of corresponding measures being taken by the international community to facilitate the denuclearization process.
The ensuing moves by Seoul officials suggest the Moon administration is seeking to resume the inter-Korean projects, particularly the joint industrial park, as a catalyst for the North’s denuclearization rather than a step to be taken after a significant progress is made.
It also seems to be trying to meet Kim’s expectations of inter-Korean economic cooperation to forge a favorable atmosphere for his possible trip to Seoul this year, which would reciprocate Moon’s visit to Pyongyang in September.
But it would prove practically impossible to bypass sanctions imposed by a series of UN resolutions adopted since the industrial complex was closed. The reopening of the industrial park would violate such resolutions, which prevent any joint projects with the North, imports of textiles and clothing from it and the delivery of machinery and transport equipment into the communist state. This means that, even if Seoul found a way to avoid sending cash to the North, which is banned under a UN resolution adopted in March 2013, it would be impossible to revive the industrial complex.
The cash-strapped Pyongyang might show no interest in Seoul’s possible proposal to pay wages for North Korean workers in kind, with rice, for example.
The Moon government’s push to reopen the industrial complex would also run the risk of causing a conflict with the US, which remains firm that sanctions should be kept until the North has completely discarded its nuclear weapons program. The US may well judge that the reopening of the industrial complex would unravel the international sanctions regime imposed on the North.
The Moon government needs to keep its approach to the industrial park and other inter-Korean projects in line with objective international conditions, not with Pyongyang’s one-sided demands.