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South Korea should take active role in denuclearizing North: ex-minister

Jan. 20, 2020 - 18:03 By Ahn Sung-mi

Lee Jong-seok, former unification minister, speaks to reporters on Monday. (Yonhap)

South Korea should take an active stance in dealing with North Korea amid stalled inter-Korean ties, such as by showing its resolve to halt joint military exercises with the US, a former unification minister said Monday. 

“For the past 1 1/2 years since the Singapore summit, Seoul’s stance was that inter-Korean relations need to adjust to the speed of US-North Korea dialogue. But with the deadlocked denuclearization talks, inter-Korean relations are reaching their worst state,” Lee Jong-seok, who headed the Unification Ministry in 2006, told reporters. 

“Two years ago, we developed inter-Korean relations first and then it led to improved US-North Korea relations. We need to remember that and bring (that situation) back.”

To bring Pyongyang back to the table, Lee suggested two solutions. The first is for Seoul and Washington to completely suspend their joint military exercises, which have irked North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a long time. The second is to call on the US and the international community to ease the sanctions that are crippling North Korea’s economy. 

“Kim’s main focus is economic development,” he said. “That’s why the joint military drill is putting stress (on North Korea) at a time when the North has diverted a large number of military forces to the construction site and munitions factory.”

If South Korea and the US revive their annual drills, Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, Kim will have to reinforce the North’s military capabilities in response, he explained. 

“If Seoul has strong determination to actively halt the drills, I think North Korea can bring change, which could improve inter-Korean relations,” he said. 

As for the sanctions, Lee stressed that economic restrictions on Pyongyang are a means to denuclearization, not an end in itself. 

Despite Pyongyang’s threats of a “new strategic weapon” and taking a new path earlier this year, Lee said Kim’s main focus is reviving the North’s economy. “It is (because of) the economy (that) Kim decided to negotiate denuclearization in the first place, but after judging that the US has no intention of lifting sanctions, (the North) decided to take its own path,” he said, adding that the North has made it clear that the door for dialogue hasn’t closed yet. 

“The goal is to resume the dialogue for denuclearization with North Korea. And in order to do that, it’s important to have some flexibility on what Pyongyang wants,” he said. “The US has been monopolizing the methodology for denuclearization.”

He added that the US should be open to China and Russia’s suggestion that the UN ease sanctions on Pyongyang. That doesn’t mean lifting them entirely, but implementing a “snapback” mechanism, which would enable sanctions to be reinstated if the North restarted its nuclear activities. 

On Seoul’s latest push to allow individual trips to North Korea, which some say is the source of a rift with Washington, he restated the government’s position -- that individual tourism is a sovereign matter and does not violate any sanctions. “If people (from the) North and South could visit each other, it could become a means to maintain peace militarily and no war on the Korean Peninsula.”

On the reports that the North picked former military officer Ri Son-kwon as its new foreign minister, replacing Ri Yong-ho, he said he believed the choice was based on merit, not a shift toward a hard-line stance against the US. 

“It’s hard to view that the North has changed its position on the US,” he said. “I don’t think Ri Son-kwon will play a substantial role (in nuclear negotiations). It is highly likely that (nuclear negotiations) will center on First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Son-hui.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (