Analysts say that as North Korea advances its weapons systems while it rejects the Biden administration’s offer for talks, there are growing signs of a potentially destabilizing rift between Washington and Seoul on whether to ease sanctions on Pyongyang.
South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said Friday the United States and South Korea should consider easing sanctions on North Korea as a way to entice Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
“I think that now, time is ripe for the consideration of sanctions relief,” said Chung during a parliamentary session in Seoul on Friday when asked whether sanctions on North Korea should be eased.
Chung, who attended the U.N. General Assembly last month with President Moon Jae-in, said, “If we let the status quo continue, it will lead to the strengthening of North Korean missile capabilities.” He made the remark in a September 23 interview with The Washington Post.
Chung previously served as Moon’s national security adviser and played a mediating role between Washington and Pyongyang by conveying North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s eagerness to meet with former President Donald Trump when he visited the White House in March 2018. Chung announced the first summit between Kim and Trump, but talks between Washington and Pyongyang stalled in October 2019.
Since taking office in May 2017, Moon has been prioritizing lasting rapprochement with Pyongyang and inter-Korean cooperation over denuclearization, a position that has often run counter to Washington’s policy on North Korea.
David Maxwell, a senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Seoul’s call for sanctions relief “will generate significant friction in the alliance as the U.S. resists the ROK push for sanctions relief.” ROK is an acronym of South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
In response to Chung's remarks, the U.S. State Department on Friday stressed the need for maintaining sanctions on North Korea. “The DPRK continues to fund its WMD and ballistic missile programs through sanctions evasion efforts in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions," a State Department spokesperson told VOA’s Korean Service. DPRK refers to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“It is important for the international community to send a strong, unified message that the DPRK must halt provocations, abide by its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions and engage in sustained and intensive negotiations with the United States,” said the spokesperson.
“United Nations sanctions on the DPRK remain in place, and we will continue to implement them, including through diplomacy at the United Nations and with the DPRK’s neighbors,” the spokesperson continued.
Pyongyang so far has dismissed Washington’s repeated offer of dialogue without preconditions.
Kim, in a speech made to the regime’s Supreme People’s Assembly on Thursday, described the offer as “a petty trick for deceiving the international community” and “an extension of the hostile policy pursued by the successive U.S. administration.”
While opposing diplomatic engagement with the U.S., Kim offered to restore severed inter-Korean communication lines starting in October. Many experts see this proposition as a way to encourage South Korea to push for sanctions relief while driving the wedge between Seoul and Washington.
Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, “It’s been clear to me that there is a significant gap between the U.S. and the ROK on how to deal with North Korea, but it is also clear that the two allies are doing their best to manage their differences and create the impression that they are on the same page.”
Joseph DeTrani, who served as the U.S. special envoy to the Six-Party Talks on denuclearization from 2003 to 2006, called on the two allies to stay in “sync,” saying it is of “paramount importance” in dealing with North Korea.
According to Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Biden administration believes sanctions relief should come only as a reward for the Kim regime making steps toward denuclearization because Pyongyang has a history of violating past agreements.
“For this framework to be altered, South Korea must provide a convincing argument and compelling evidence for how and why a different approach would yield better results,” said Snyder.
While seeking sanctions relief, Pyongyang has been advancing its missile technology. North Korea conducted four rounds of missile tests in September with the latest test of “newly developed anti-air missile” on Thursday, according to its state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The regime said Wednesday it had test-fired a new hypersonic missile. Earlier in September, Pyongyang tested rail-launched short-range ballistic missiles for the first time and new long-range cruise missiles that aim to evade missile-defense systems.
Revere thinks granting sanctions relief before Pyongyang resumes dialogue and without its taking action toward denuclearization would be a “major mistake.”