Two years on, NK sanctions still divisive
Two years after the Lee Myung-bak administration imposed strict sanctions on North Korea for the deadly sinking of the warship Cheonan, humanitarian workers continue to call on Seoul to loosen restrictions and better assist the impoverished people there.
The May 24, 2010, measures halted nearly all trade and assistance across the border, prompting complaints from local aid groups, some of which say the inactivity has caused problems in staffing and fundraising.
Though the Ministry of Unification lifted the measures slightly last year, the calls highlight a divide over how to handle the impoverished state, whose regime shows few signs of quelling its recalcitrance.
“Though we understand the government’s position, we find the May 24 sanctions ineffective,” an aid group official said, asking not to be named. “The situation hasn’t changed. The administration needs a better strategy to work things out, but the sanctions make that difficult.
“Neither government is helping things at all.”
The group had previously sent agricultural goods to the North but after the sanctions, they were deemed “strategic materials” that could be used to feed the military. The official worried that the they are at risk of being wasted unless follow-up items are sent soon.
Tensions have been high since the Lee administration ended a decade of heavy engagement and tied provision of aid to denuclearization. Under a more “flexible” policy, the administration eased the sanctions a little in March 2011, allowing approved groups to send flour, medicine, clothes and other limited supplies to the North.
Thorny relations have persisted as the North’s new leader Kim Jong-un consolidates power and Pyongyang cranks up vitriolic propaganda against the South.
Following the North’s failed rocket launch last month, seen by the international community as a provocative ballistic missile test, the ministry said it had no choice but to suspend any expansion of the flexibility.
Recent surveys have shown that despite some fatigue over Pyongyang’s behavior, most support cautious engagement in a bid to reduce tensions. .
One Seoul official said while criticism from the NGOs was understandable, the sanctions were still necessary.
“Without any apology or guarantee of safety for South Korean nationals, we can’t let go of this and act as if nothing happened. It is inevitable for organizations to have to wait because their security may also be at risk (if they travel to the North),” the official said.
Some $2.22 million worth of civiclevel aid has been delivered to the North this year, according to the ministry.
But critics remain.
“It was a strategic mistake to keep the sanctions for so long,” Moon Chung-in, an international relations expert at Yonsei University said. “Because if you have cooperation between the two Koreas, we can have more chances to influence the North and mitigate its hostile behavior.”
Saying the sides had regressed into a “prideful game of chicken,” he said increased aid was unlikely until a new administration takes office, unless backdoor negotiations take place.
In a rare bright spot, production at the joint Gaeseong Industrial Complex in the North increased last year, jumping more than 24 percent from 2010 and the number of workers continued to rise.
Analysts say this is because Seoul sees the project as a way to glean information about the North while continuing to encourage economic reform among its people. Pyongyang likely views it as a valuable source of cash.