SEOUL (SOUTH KOREA): South Korea‘s President Moon Jae-in urged North Korea to take firmer disarmament measures and the U.S. to reward them, suggesting Thursday he’ll push for sanction exemptions to restart dormant economic cooperation projects with the North.

Some experts say the sanctions relief, if pursued before South Korea’s ally Washington is ready, could weaken ties with the United States and complicate efforts to rid the North of its nuclear weapons. But others say Moon simply made a symbolic, conciliatory gesture toward North Korea.

Moon spoke only days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s Day address that he was ready to resume the two major stalled inter-Korean projects. Kim also said he’ll be compelled to take a different path if the United States keeps pressing for unilateral sanctions against the North as well as maintaining broader UN sanctions.

The two projects are South Korean tours to the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain and a jointly run factory complex in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. They were suspended in the past decade along with other similar projects amid the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program. The two projects were considered key sources for badly needed foreign currency for the impoverished North.

“We welcome North Korea’s intention to resume their operation without conditions or compensation,” Moon said. “My administration will cooperate with the international community, including the United States, to resolve the remaining issues such as international sanctions as soon as possible.”

Moon said resolving the issue of the North Korea sanctions hinges on how fast North Korea denuclearizes and whether it receives reciprocal measures from the United States. He said those would top the agenda in an expected second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump.

“North Korea knows it needs (to take) clear denuclearization steps to see international sanctions lifted and the United States also realizes that reciprocal measures are needed to match these North Korean denuclearization steps,” Moon said.

Moon, a liberal who took office in 2017, has shuttled between North Korea and the United States to facilitate high-profile nuclear diplomacy including the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore last June. Moon’s overture, however, has invited criticism from conservatives in South Korea and the United States that he’s making too many concessions and helping the North weaken US-led sanctions. Trump has maintained sanctions on North Korea until it completely abandons its nuclear program.

Moon spoke soon after Kim headed back to Pyongyang after a four-day trip to Beijing that included a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese and North Korean state media reported earlier Thursday that Kim told Xi that he’s committed to setting up a second summit with Trump to “achieve results” on the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula.

“In a word, Chairman Kim Jong Un’s visit to China is an indication that the second North Korea-US summit is drawing near,” Moon said.

He said that the second summit, and a return visit to Seoul by Kim, “will be other turning points that will firmly solidify peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

“We will not loosen our guard until the promise to denuclearize the peninsula is kept and peace is fully institutionalized,” Moon said.


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