South Korea weighs support for tougher sanctions on North as it seeks Olympics peace

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 22, 2017 1:30 AM

By Hyonhee Shin and Heekyong Yang

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean officials signaled support for a U.S.-drafted U.N. resolution designed to toughen sanctions on North Korea, even as Seoul seeks to delay joint military exercises with the United States to attract the North to the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Tensions have been rising over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, which it pursues in defiance of years of different U.N. Security Council resolutions, with bellicose rhetoric from the North and the White House. But U.S. diplomats have made clear they are seeking a diplomatic solution.

An official at South Korea's Unification Ministry said Seoul supported global efforts to rein in North Korea, while a foreign ministry spokesperson declined to comment until after the Security Council vote on the resolution on Friday.

The additional sanctions would come as South Korean President Moon Jae-in seeks to ease tensions ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. He has proposed delaying annual joint military drills with the United States, which North Korea sees as a preparation for invasion, until after the Games.

"The North should have its own thinking about whether or not to participate in the Olympics (regardless of sanctions)," the Unification Ministry official told Reuters. "If it were to come, it would make a decision at the last minute. Until then we will continue to wait and see."

At a meeting with his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo on Friday, South Korean nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon requested Japan’s cooperation in making the Pyeongchang Olympics a "pivotal chance to foster the momentum for peace".

While U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have publicly derided negotiations as useless without major policy shifts by the other side, Seoul has continued a slightly softer approach, while still supporting international pressure.

"If we get to meet the North side, we are willing to have frank, active discussions on various issues that are of North Korea's interest, without any preconditions," South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told reporters in Seoul.

"Next year, we would pursue our policy in a more proactive manner than this year, making use of various opportunities, including the Pyeongchang Olympics."

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy South Korea, the United States and Japan and says its weapons programs are necessary to counter U.S. aggression. The United States stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The draft resolution, seen by Reuters on Thursday, seeks to ban nearly 90 percent of refined petroleum product exports to North Korea by capping them at 500,000 barrels a year and demand the repatriation of North Koreans working abroad within 12 months.

It would also cap crude oil supplies to North Korea at 4 million barrels a year, as well as ban a number of North Korean exports such as machinery, lumber, and other products and resources.

The United States has been calling on China to limit its oil supply to its neighbor and ally, and the success of any sanctions would depend on the support and cooperation of Beijing and other regional trading partners, said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice foreign minister.

"Even if the U.N. passes this resolution, once again, it is just a matter of how strictly China is committed to implementing all of the U.N. sanctions on North Korea," he said. "We have had numerous - sometimes so-called toughest - sanctions against North Korea over the past 25 years. Almost none have worked effectively to halt the regime's military and nuclear ambitions."

China and Russia on Thursday asked for more time to consider a U.S. proposal to blacklist 10 ships for transporting banned items from North Korea, diplomats said. It was unclear how much more time would be given.

North Korea has not directly responded to the new proposals, but on Thursday, leader Kim told a conference of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea that it was a "miracle of history" that the country had developed despite "harsh sanctions and pressure threatening the existence of the state and its people," state media reported.

(Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie)