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N Korea at crossroads

South Korea sends mixed messages on Pyongyang sanctions

Foreign minister backtracks on statement suggesting removal of bans

North Korea sent a large group of cheerleaders to the Pyeongchang Olympics earlier this year in South Korea.   © AP

SEOUL -- South Korea suggested on Wednesday that it could lift certain unilateral sanctions against North Korea, only to walk the idea back in light of criticism, showcasing President Moon Jae-in's eagerness to improve ties with the northern neighbor.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told lawmakers on Wednesday that a review is being conducted for the unilateral sanctions Seoul imposed in response to a deadly 2010 attack on a South Korean warship by the North. Under the measures, restrictions have been placed on investment and travel to and from North Korea, among other things.

Kang's comment met with immediate protests from conservative lawmakers, forcing her to backtrack and apologize for "causing a misunderstanding."

Despite the ongoing sanctions, the South Korean government has made exceptions for cultural exchanges. It allowed a North Korean ferry carrying cheerleaders and other performers to make port for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics earlier this year. The games were also attended by such VIPs as Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of Central Committee of the North's ruling Workers' Party of Korea.

Much of the South's economic and trade sanctions regime matches United Nations Security Council measures, which the U.S. plans to maintain until the North denuclearizes. While Seoul can technically lift its unilateral sanctions whenever it wants, doing so would be difficult without prior approval from Washington.

"We will consider a flexible response that does not undermine U.N. sanctions," said an official at South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Meanwhile, North Korea is ramping up efforts to ease international sanctions. Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui met on Tuesday with Chinese and Russian counterparts in Moscow, with the trio issuing a joint communique that noted Pyongyang's progress on denuclearization and urged the Security Council to reconsider sanctions.

The three sides also affirmed their opposition to unilateral sanctions -- an apparent jab at the U.S. -- and their support for the phased denuclearization approach sought by the North.

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