SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea moved to patch up an emerging diplomatic row with the United States on Thursday, disowning any plan to lift sanctions against North Korea after President Donald Trump's remark that Seoul could "do nothing" without Washington's "approval."
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha of South Korea said Wednesday that government agencies were discussing lifting a broad trade and investment embargo that Seoul imposed on the North in 2010, a statement that came despite Washington's efforts to keep the economic noose on Pyongyang until it denuclearizes.
The minister's comment alarmed conservative South Koreans, who accused the government of undermining their country's alliance with the United States, which has led the effort to impose U.N. sanctions on North Korea.
Kang's remarks also risked antagonizing the Trump administration, which considers the sanctions its most potent leverage against the North. South Korea's indication that it might break ranks came just as Washington was criticizing Beijing and Moscow for undermining sanctions enforcement.
"They won't do it without our approval," Trump said of the South Korean suggestion Wednesday. "They do nothing without our approval."
On Thursday, the South Korean minister for unification, Cho Myoung-gyon, walked back Kang's comments, saying that "no detailed consideration" had been given to removing the sanctions.
Cho also said that it would be hard to lift the sanctions unless North Korea apologized for the sinking of a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 sailors in 2010. The sanctions were imposed in retaliation for that action, but North Korea has vehemently denied involvement.
As part of his successful presidential campaign last year, Moon Jae-in declared that South Korea should learn to say no to Washington, the country's most important ally. He also questioned the usefulness of the Pentagon's plan to deploy an anti-missile defense system in South Korea and pushed back at Trump's threat to launch a military attack on North Korea.
But since taking office, Moon has learned the wisdom of calming and even flattering Trump to get the U.S. president on his side in pursuing warmer ties with North Korea.
He repeatedly praised Trump for bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table, crediting him for making the latest rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula possible. He eventually accepted the deployment of the Pentagon missile defense system, known as THAAD. South Korea also bowed to Trump's pressure and revised a bilateral trade agreement.
Trump's comment Wednesday did not go down well with many South Koreans.
"It is a diplomatically very coarse comment that can be seen as an infringement upon the sovereignty of another country," the news agency Yonhap said in an editorial Thursday. "It's regrettable that such an insulting comment came between allies."
A small group of progressive politicians and students rallied near the U.S. Embassy in central Seoul on Thursday, denouncing a "gangsterlike" Trump for treating its ally like a "colony" and trying to impede progress in relations between the two Koreas. They held signs saying, "We don't need American approval!"
"The dog barks, but the caravan moves on," Lee Eun-hae, a spokesman at the minor progressive Minjung Party, said in a statement about Trump and closer relations with North Korea.
But Kim Moo-sung, a conservative legislator, said that Moon's government had asked for an "insult" from the U.S. by speaking "too much on North Korea's behalf."
Moon's office did not comment on Trump's remark, saying only that the allies closely coordinated their policies on North Korea. Washington also denies any rift with Seoul.
South Korea officially agrees with the United States that it should not improve ties with North Korea too fast without progress in the denuclearization of the North. But there have been subtle differences between the allies over the pace of inter-Korean engagement amid concerns in Washington that Pyongyang was not moving quickly enough to denuclearize.
Washington remains focused on enforcing sanctions, while Seoul wants to expand inter-Korean ties as an incentive for the North. South Korea has indicated that it wants to bolster economic and other exchanges with the North to the extent that they do not violate U.N. sanctions.
A Section on 10/12/2018
Print Headline: S. Korea backtracks on lifting sanctions