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S. Korea studies break for North

Lifting sanctions a diplomatic path, foreign minister asserts

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Photographs by AP/Yonhap/HWANG KWANG-MO

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha speaks Wednesday at the National Assembly in Seoul. She said South Korea is looking into lifting sanctions against North Korea.

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea is considering lifting some of its unilateral sanctions against North Korea to create more momentum for diplomacy aimed at improving relations and defusing the nuclear crisis, the South'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 after a deadly attack on a warship that killed 45 South Korean sailors.

South Korea then effectively shut down all cross-border economic cooperation except for a jointly run 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. The so-called May 24 measures of 2010 also banned North Korea from using shipping lanes in South Korean territory.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has mostly stayed firm on sanctions despite actively engaging with North Korea and floating the possibility of huge investments and joint economic projects in return for the North's relinquishment of its nuclear weapons.

A move by South Korea to lift its unilateral sanctions would have little immediate effect since U.S.-led international sanctions remain in place. But it's clear Seoul is preparing to restart joint economic projects if the larger nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea begin yielding results.

"Many parts of the May 24 measures now duplicate with the United Nations sanctions [against North Korea]," Kang said. "As negotiations continue to improve ties between the South and North and achieve denuclearization, there's a need to flexibly review [lifting the measures] as long as it doesn't damage the larger framework of sanctions against the North."

Moon has described inter-Korean engagement as crucial to resolving the nuclear standoff. A large number of South Korean business leaders accompanied Moon last month to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, where he and leader Kim Jong Un agreed to normalize operations at the Kaesong factory park and resume joint tours to North Korea when possible, voicing optimism the international sanctions could end and allow such projects.

The North and South also announced measures to reduce conventional military threats, such as creating buffer zones along their land and sea boundaries and a no-fly zone above the border. The North also said it would dismantle its main nuclear facility in Nyongbyon if the United States takes unspecified corresponding measures.

The fast pace in inter-Korean engagement appears to have created a level of unease in Washington, which insists that efforts to improve relations between the Koreas should move in tandem with efforts to denuclearize the North.

Kang also said Wednesday that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed displeasure over the military agreement between the Koreas. Kang did not specify what Pompeo was unhappy about, but said he asked "multiple questions" about the agreement's content. Kang's comments are likely to fuel speculation that Washington wasn't fully on board before Seoul signed the agreement.

Despite meeting Moon three times and holding a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in June, Kim has yet to provide a convincing sign that he's ready to deal away his nuclear weapons, which he may see as his strongest guarantee of survival. Pompeo recently visited Kim in Pyongyang in an effort to set up another summit between him and Trump after months of friction in lower-level talks that saw North Korea accuse Washington of "gangster-like" demands on denuclearization.

When asked about Seoul considering lifting some sanctions to create space for diplomacy with North Korea, Trump said: "They won't do that without our approval. They do nothing without our approval."

South Koreans are deeply divided along ideological lines and many people still harbor deep anger over North Korea's 1950 attack that started the Korean War, killing and injuring millions. There has been occasional bloodshed ever since -- the 2010 attack on the warship was followed months later by North Korea's shelling of a South Korean border island that killed four people and gutted homes.

Any premature easing of penalties is bound to face a backlash from conservative South Koreans, who fear it could undermine their country's alliance with the United States.

Washington has repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping "maximum" economic pressure on the North until it denuclearizes. It also has demanded that South Korea not improve inter-Korean ties too fast without progress on the issue.

Information for this article was contributed by Choe Sang-hun of The New York Times.

A Section on 10/11/2018

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