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A diplomatic pretzel

Jan 17,2019
South Korea’s top diplomat reversed her initial stance on inter-Korean ventures amid a stalemate in Washington-Pyongyang denuclearization talks by saying the Moon Jae-in administration was not yet reviewing the idea of reopening the Kaesong Industrial Park or restarting Mount Kumgang tours during a press conference Wednesday.

Just five days ago, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said in the National Assembly that the government needs to find ways to reopen the industrial park in North Korea without directly injecting cash into the inter-Korean project, which would breach international sanctions. Her comments sparked controversy over whether the Moon administration was trying to circumvent the United Nations- and U.S.- led sanctions at a time when the Kim Jong-un regime has not taken any substantial steps toward denuclearization.

Whether Kang was representing the government position or not, the foreign minister cannot avoid criticism for being rash on a sensitive issue that can upset ties with the United States. The industrial park and tour programs served as a cash cow for North Korea. Actually, the two joint projects are South Korea’s last bit of hefty leverage as they can ensure $150 million in hard-cash revenues for North Korea every year.

At the same time, Kang’s flip-flop underscores South Korea’s diplomatic predicament. Washington distrusts Seoul to the point of floating the idea of bringing home about 6,000 U.S. soldiers from the current 28,500 stationed in South Korea. China also defies our warnings not to fly its reconnaissance aircraft beyond Korea’s air defense identification zone. Japan has been lashing out at South Korea by dropping its reference of the South as the “most important neighbor” in a recently released Defense White Paper.

In fact, the Moon administration has actually made little headway in inter-Korean relationship despite all its endeavors and a succession of summits. It is still unclear when or whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will visit South Korea as agreed last September.

The diplomatic pretzel should be unknotted by Kang herself. She does not come off as reliable, dangerously swaying between the Blue House’s sentiments and those of our partners overseas. Kang must remind herself of her heavy responsibility as the chief of South Korea’s foreign affairs and speak frankly to the Blue House, if necessary, so that she can be relied on to represent our country’s interests on the global stage and on behalf of the people.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 17, Page 30