Trump an­gry af­ter South Korea sig­nals it may ease North Korea sanc­tions

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Ben­jamin Haas in Seoul

South Korea has con­sid­ered lift­ing eco­nomic sanc­tions de­signed to force North Korea to re­lin­quish its nu­clear weapons, draw­ing a swift re­buke from Don­ald Trump and ex­pos­ing a rift in Seoul’s al­liance with Wash­ing­ton.

On Thurs­day the South Korean for­eign min­is­ter, Kang Kyung-wha, sug­gested Seoul was in­creas­ingly will­ing to lift sanc­tions im­posed in 2010 af­ter the sink­ing of a navy corvette that killed 46 sailors. The move would be mostly sym­bolic since South Korea would still be re­quired to fol­low United Na­tions sanc­tions, which cover much of the same ar­eas.

Kang said “a re­view is un­der way” when asked about the mea­sures that pro­hibit al­most all in­ter-Korean ex­changes out­side of hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance.

The re­mark drew crit­i­cism from Trump. “They won’t do it with­out our ap­proval. They do noth­ing with­out our ap­proval,” Trump said. In Wash­ing­ton, of­fi­cials have vowed to main­tain a “max­i­mum pres­sure” cam­paign un­til the North de­nu­cle­arises.

Kang also ad­mit­ted US sec­re­tary of state Mike Pom­peo had been “dis­con­tent” with a mil­i­tary agree­ment be­tween with two Koreas, say­ing he was not briefed suf­fi­ciently.

The stark dif­fer­ence in mes­sag­ing has ex­posed a long-sim­mer­ing rift be­tween South Korea and the US over how to deal with North Korea. Moon’s lib­eral gov­ern­ment has favoured closer ties with the North, but has also vowed to ad­here to in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions which bar most trade with the regime.

“No mat­ter the sub­stan­tive dis­agree­ment be­tween the two sides, I think Seoul and Wash­ing­ton will move quickly to pa­per over his com­ments and main­tain a fa­cade of align­ment,” said Min­taro Oba, a former US diplo­mat who worked on North Korea pol­icy.

South Korea still hopes to press ahead with im­prov­ing ties with its neigh­bour, Oba said, and Moon “will con­tinue to test the en­ve­lope but avoid any ac­tions he thinks will cause open ten­sions with the United States”.

Trump said this week the US had “made in­cred­i­ble progress” in deal­ing with North Korea, say­ing: “You’ve got no rock­ets fly­ing. You have no mis­siles fly­ing. You have no nu­clear test­ing. You have nu­clear clos­ings”. But he added that Py­ongyang still had to do more.

“We haven’t re­moved sanc­tions. We have very big sanc­tions,” Trump said. “I’d love to re­move them, but we have to get some­thing for do­ing that.”

There were also rum­bles within South Korea that the idea of sanc­tions relief is be­ing dis­cussed pre­ma­turely. An ed­i­to­rial ti­tled “Kang flubs it” de­scribed her com­ments as “short­sighted” and said the pa­per was “dumb­founded” by her re­marks.

“Sanc­tions are the very lever­age we have to de­nu­cle­arise the North,” the ed­i­to­rial said. “If the Moon ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves Py­ongyang will more ac­tively de­nu­cle­arise as long we show sin­cer­ity, that’s wish­ful think­ing.”

Pho­to­graph: Jung Yeonje/AP

South Korean for­eign min­is­ter Kang Kyung-wha said eco­nomic sanc­tions against North Korea were be­ing re­viewed.

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