October 12, 2018 13:07
U.S. President Donald Trump responded to a gaffe by Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha suggesting that South Korea could ease some sanctions against North Korea by saying, "Well, they won't do it without our approval. They do nothing without our approval." Trump is notorious for his foot-in-mouth approach to international diplomacy, but the warning behind the verbiage is clear -- South Korea must not get in the way of efforts to pressure North Korea to denuclearize.
Seoul unilaterally slapped sanctions on North Korea on May 24, 2010 after the North attacked and sank the Navy corvette Cheonan. Government efforts to lift these sanctions to pursue cross-border economic projects would fly in the face of UN Security Council sanctions, which cover much the same ground and by which South Korea is bound. It would also align it with North Korea, China and Russia, which have issued a joint statement urging the UN Security Council to reconsider sanctions against the North, and against the U.S. Government officials rushed into damage-control mode after Trump's outburst and denied everything, but Kang was probably only giving voice to a common line of thought in the Moon Jae-in administration.
Kang earlier suffered the indignity of being shouted at by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was incensed that he had not been consulted over inter-Korean agreements to reconnect cross-border railways and reduce arms along the border. Pompeo warned that the agreements could violate sanctions and undermine joint defense readiness of the allies. Signs are everywhere apparent that the government's eagerness for rapprochement with North Korea is widening rifts with its most important ally.
But if denuclearization efforts fail and North Korea becomes a nuclear-armed state, it is South Korea that would pay the biggest price. The North halted intercontinental ballistic missile tests before verifying whether they are actually capable of hitting targets on the U.S. mainland. This is why many believe the North was really angling for direct negotiations with the U.S. But the nukes could certainly be loaded on smaller missiles that can strike the South.
Amid an impasse in denuclearization talks, Washington and Pyongyang could strike a deal whereby the threat to the U.S. mainland is removed but the North keeps its nukes, and they would certainly be capable of hitting anywhere in South Korea. In other words, it is South Korea rather than the U.S. that has the most to lose if pressure on North Korea eases and other countries violate sanctions against North Korea.
If Trump tries to strike a lesser deal with the North to curry favor with voters, it is South Korea that needs to protest most strongly. But instead Moon has taken on the role of North Korea's de facto spokesman, while the U.S. is doing what the South Korean government ought to do. This could have catastrophic results.
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