Seoul faces tough decision over North Korea sanctions

Seoul faces tough decision over North Korea sanctions
PHOTO: The Korea Herald/ANN

South Korea faces a tough decision over its economic sanctions against North Korea, as the public here remains torn over the issue that could affect voter sentiment ahead of the parliamentary elections next April.

Seoul maintains that the so-called May 24 sanctions, which were imposed after Pyongyang's torpedo attack on the corvette Cheonan in March 2010, can only be terminated with the regime's apology for it, steps to prevent a recurrence and the punishment of the attackers.

But calls have been rising for Seoul to take a more flexible approach to the issue to pave the way for bilateral reconciliation and co-operation, which would, in turn, ease military tensions on the peninsula.

Now halfway through her five-year presidency, President Park Geun-hye appears compelled to weigh a variety of political and diplomatic variables involving the sanctions that ban South Koreans' visits to the North, any cross-border trade and new investments for the impoverished state.

Apparently, political variables would be crucial for Park to consider given the impact of inter-Korean tensions on her public support ratings.

After the two Koreas reached a rare agreement to ease military tensions last Tuesday, the latest opinion survey by local pollster Realmeter found that public support for her state management jumped to 49.2 per cent, an increase of 8.2 percentage points from the previous week.

"In terms of politics, North Korea bashing helps strengthen cohesion among political conservatives here. Given all the political factors, it is impossible for Seoul to unilaterally lift the sanctions to meet Pyongyang's demand," said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification.

"But should Seoul forge a situation in which Pyongyang is seen making concessions in cross-border negotiations as we witnessed last week. This would have more political benefits for Park and help create an opportunity for her to loosen or lift the sanctions."

Observers largely agree that the conditions have not yet been forged for the lifting of the sanctions given that Pyongyang continues to argue that the 2010 torpedo attack that killed 46 sailors was an "outright fabrication."

Even though the North would never identify itself as being behind the attack and apologise, securing an expression of regret, albeit unsatisfactory for the South Korean public, could help the two Koreas move their relationship forward, they noted.

Huh Moon-young, a senior fellow at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, said that Seoul needs to exert more flexibility in the third year of its term after it spent its first and second years on crafting its policy toward the North and fleshing it out.

"In the third year of its term, the Seoul government now can apply more flexibility to actually enforce and realise its policy goals that were crafted and made concrete during the first two years," he said.

Should the two sides fail to find legitimate rationales to lift the sanctions without both sides losing face, they could resort to alternatives that may have an impact similar to the termination of the sanctions.

Seoul can set up legal exceptions to boost cross-border exchanges in the civilian sectors that would, after all, spill over into the government sector and effectively make the May 24 sanctions no longer valid, experts said.

"Without lifting the sanctions, the two sides could devise ways to loosen the sanctions such as expanding bilateral projects such as the Rajin-Khasan logistic co-operation project," said Cho Bong-hyun, a senior researcher at the Industrial Bank of Korea.

Before lifting the sanctions, what matters most is to build a "stable" inter-Korean relationship, observers said, stressing that if the current deadlocked relationship persists, lifting the sanctions would have little effect on promoting cross-border reconciliation.

"If both sides want to boost their economic exchanges and co-operation, conditions should first be forged," said Park Hyeong-jung, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

"With the North often capturing South Koreans as spies and cross-border tensions remaining high, the relationship can't fundamentally improve even after the lifting of the sanctions. The relations could get even worse should the North conduct another nuclear test."

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