January 29, 2020
Writing in NK News, NCNK Program Manager Daniel Wertz takes a look at the potential complications sanctions could pose for South Korea's initiative to facilitate individual tourism to North Korea. While the U.S. has raised sanctions-related objections to this plan, Wertz argues, the real issue at play between Washington and Seoul is about policy differences, not sanctions technicalities.
In his 2020 New Year’s Address, South Korean President Moon Jae-in emphasized “the need to find realistic ways to further advance inter-Korean cooperation,” even in the absence of progress in U.S. nuclear talks with North Korea. In a press conference later that week, President Moon said that facilitating individual South Korean tourist travel to the North could be one such measure.
The initiative appears to remain in an embryonic stage, but South Korea’s Unification Ministry has said that it is reviewing “diverse measures” to facilitate such travel if North Korea were to allow it and to guarantee the safety of South Korean tourists.
The proposal comes as inter-Korean relations have fallen far from the summitry and lofty expectations of 2018, with Pyongyang repeatedly rebuffing the Moon administration’s recent attempts at outreach.
Frustrated at South Korea’s adherence to UN sanctions despite promises of economic engagement, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last fall called for the removal of South Korea-built facilities from the Mount Kumgang resort, saying that the mountain should no longer serve as a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation. In his lengthy speech at a Party plenum meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un barely even mentioned the South.
South Korea’s proposed tourism initiative has also exposed a new fault line in the U.S.-ROK alliance, already under considerable strain from the Trump administration’s demands that Seoul radically increases its cost-sharing contributions to support the U.S. military presence on the peninsula, among other factors.
Although tourism to North Korea is not directly prohibited by UN sanctions, U.S. Ambassador to the ROK Harry Harris has publicly argued that South Korea should discuss any tourism initiative with the U.S. before moving forward with it, given the possibility of incidental sanctions violations.
An official in South Korea’s presidential office called Ambassador Harris’s remarks “very inappropriate,” saying that inter-Korean cooperation is “a matter for our government to decide.”
The U.S. and UN sanctions regimes are indeed a tripwire that could complicate prospective South Korean tourists’ travel to the North.
Yet the central matter putting Seoul and Washington at odds with one another is essentially about policy preferences, rather than sanctions technicalities: the Moon administration is urgently trying to keep the diplomatic process with North Korea alive, while the Trump administration is committed to maintaining its economic pressure campaign.