On August 15, Moon Jae-in, the South Korean President, spoke at the ceremony marking the 73rd anniversary of the Liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule. He declared that the liberation process will only be truly complete when North and South Korea have overcome the split, established a secure peace and created a single economic community. He pointed out that the European Union was also, at first, a purely economic community, and proposed the creation of an East Asian Railroad Community, which would include both Koreas, four other Asian countries, and the USA. This community will become a foundation for the future prosperity of North East Asia and serve as a foundation for a multilateral security system in the region.
The US Department of State’s comment on the South Korean president’s speech was brief: Washington and Seoul are working together as part of their combined reaction to the actions of Pyongyang, and the USA is following a policy of imposing sanctions on North Korea and insists that it first completely discontinue its nuclear weapons program. In this context, South Korean media have noted that Washington intends to block any moves South Korea might take to establish a closer cooperation with North Korea without reference to US policy. The American newspaper the New York Times has also expressed concern about Moon Jae-in’s speech: if the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang are successful, then relations between the two Koreas will no longer be a problem. However, it looks as if the South Korean government would prefer to take action immediately.
Which is logical enough. Washington is restraining Seoul, a tendency that is evident in a number of different areas. The most obvious is the question of opening a liaison office in the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the DPRK. As readers will remember, the two parties reached agreement on this point during the summit between North and South Korea on April 27, and the liaison office should have been opened by the end of August. In July South Korea budgeted 86 million won (77 000 dollars) for the renovation of the premises for the office, and later approved a further grant of 3.5 billion won (3 100 000 dollars) from the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund. It is thought that 20-30 South Koreans will work in the office. All the technical and administrative issues have already been resolved. North and South Korea just need to agree on the date when the liaison office will start working.
Seoul’s position is that the office will play an important role in improving relations between the two Koreas and in ensuring nuclear security on the Korean Peninsula. However, in view of recent events, some South Korean newspapers have expressed concerns that the opening may well be delayed due to US opposition: the US believes that opening the liaison office would be inconsistent with the current US policy of putting “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang in order to achieve its main goal – the complete denuclearization of the DPRK. Seoul needs to convince Washington that opening the liaison office would have no effect on the sanctions imposed on the DPRK.
On August 21, the US Department of State reconfirmed its position: the opening of the inter-Korean liaison office cannot be separated from the nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula. According to the State Department, inter-Korean ties must advance together with Pyongyang’s denuclearization. Nevertheless, the Department of State spokesperson did not directly say that the opening of the dialogue office was a violation of the international sanctions. On August 23, Heather Nauert, spokesperson for the US Secretary of State, said that the question was being looked at, and that supplying the office with fuel and electricity might constitute a breach of the sanctions. She also referred to an earlier statement by the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, that relations between the two Koreas could not improve without North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.
Here it should be noted that the USA had earlier agreed to exempt two matters from the sanctions regime: the restoration of a channel for liaison between the North and South Korean militaries, and reunions of divided families.
On August 27, Kim Eui-kyeom, spokesman for the South Korean Presidential Administration, backtracked a little, and said that the plans for the liaison office were contingent on progress being made in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, now that the circumstances have changed the plan needs to be looked at in detail again, and the South Korean government is unable to make unilateral decisions about opening the liaison office. It will be necessary to take into account the views of North Korea, and how it is affected by the new circumstances.
On the same day, Lee Yu-jin, spokesperson for the South Korean Unification Ministry, confirmed that the opening of the joint liaison office in Kaesong would be postponed indefinitely in view of the lack of progress in relations between Pyongyang and Washington and the cancellation of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang.
On August 28, Suh Hoon, Director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, emphasized that the opening of the liaison center would not be in breach of the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. The office should permit South Korea to improve communications with Pyongyang, which is necessary to bring about nuclear disarmament. But it seems he failed to get his point across.
Another, rather similar situation, relates to the planned joint test runs on the North Korean part of the railway linking Seoul and Sinuiju, on the DPRK’s border with China. These were to have taken place from August 22-27. According to the plan, a special six-carriage train would have made the return journey. This would have been only the second time a train crossed the border between North and South Korea since the two countries’ railway systems were separated on September 11, 1945. (The first time was after the 2007 Inter-Korean summit, in which the two countries agreed to use the railway to transport a joint welcoming committee to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In the end, the plan fell through, but a trial run of the journey was conducted).
The position of the South Korean government is that the railway project does not fall within the scope of the UN, or US, sanctions against North Korea. However, the UN joint command forces in South Korea refused permission for the testing equipment to be moved across the DMZ because Seoul had not given 48 hours’ notice, which is a requirement for crossing the border. Seoul had informed the UN command forces just one day before the planned crossing. South Korean leftists are unconvinced by this explanation, as in the past the requirement had been a mere formality.
According to the Korean War Armistice Agreement, the UN command has the authority to grant or deny authorization for specific persons and items to cross the DMZ. The UN commander is also the commander of the US forces in South Korea. The left-leaning pro-government newspaper, Hankyoreh Shinmun, writes that Washington’s interference in the attempts to improve inter-Korean cooperation has reached the point where it is infringing the country’s sovereignty.
And this is how things stand as of the time of writing: On September 1, a spokesperson for the US Department of State said that improved relations between the two Koreas must depend on progress on denuclearization. That was his answer to a question about whether a proposed visit to Pyongyang by a South Korean special presidential envoy, and a proposed summit between the two Koreas, could revive the talks between Washington and Pyongyang. Commenting on the chances of achieving normal relations between the two countries, despite the current stall in talks, he said that the two questions needed to be resolved “in lockstep” and that diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang should be maintained until it could be fully verified that North Korea had finally disarmed.
It is therefore no wonder that on August 16 the leading North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun published an article expressing the view that the Panmunjom Declaration cannot be implemented if Seoul continues to follow the policy of foreign powers whose sole wish is to hold back inter-Korean cooperation. Currently the USA is putting pressure on the South Korean authorities, private companies and organizations, in order to obstruct cooperation and any kind of exchange with North Korea, but, in order to improve relations between the two Koreas, Seoul needs to, in the words of the article, “act in full accordance with the principle of national independence and not accept any interference from other countries.”
However, we should remember that Washington is exerting both political and economic pressure to limit Seoul’s scope for political maneuvering. In future articles, the present author will therefore look at some of the tools that the USA can use at any time to bring it to heel.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”