By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, Jan. 24 (Yonhap) -- Sanctions on North Korea do not ban humanitarian assistance, such as Seoul's plan to send anti-flu medicine Tamiflu across the border, but its shipment has been held up for weeks reportedly because of concern that the means of delivery, cargo trucks, could be subject to sanctions.
That and other delays in inter-Korean humanitarian exchanges have raised questions about the purpose of sanctions and criticism that the United States, which takes the lead in making sure U.N. sanctions are enforced, may be using even humanitarian work as a tool to move its denuclearization agenda forward.
"U.S. officials appear to be applying an unnecessary yardstick (in enforcing sanctions) as they have become conservative due to 10 years of their distrust of North Korea," professor Yang Moo-jin at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said.
"Government officials, including the unification ministry handling inter-Korean affairs should work hard to explain to the U.S. the unique nature of relations between the two Koreas and persuade it (on such issues)," he added.
In December, South Korea announced a plan to send 200,000 doses of Tamiflu to North Korea via a land route over their western border, but delivery, which had initially been scheduled for Jan. 11, has been put off for unclear reasons.
The unification ministry said it needed more time to prepare for the cross-border delivery, but the repeated delays have prompted concerns that the medication could be rendered useless as the peak influenza season is drawing to an end.
The ministry didn't say exactly what is holding up the delivery, but news reports have said that Seoul and Washington are discussing possible violations of sanctions in using trucks for transporting the drugs, even though the vehicles are supposed to return home after unloading the cargo.
South Korea believes that trucks needed to transport the medication have nothing to do with sanctions as they are for humanitarian purposes, but Washington is insisting that they are separate matters, according to the reports.
The government has only said the delay is due in part to a need for further consultations with the U.S.
The Tamiflu case is just the latest in a series of cross-border humanitarian exchanges being held up apparently due to Washington's push to maintain the global sanctions regime.
The plan to arrange video reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, which was agreed by the leaders of the two Koreas in September, has hit a snag as well due to worries that moving the necessary equipment to the North could violate global sanctions.
Washington reportedly did not allow South Korean officials to carry laptop computers when they traveled to the North for joint field surveys of the North's railways and roads last year, citing possible sanctions violations.
Global sanctions are also suspected of standing in the way of Seoul's plan unveiled in 2017 to provide US$8 million worth of assistance to North Korea via international agencies.
Experts attributed such delays to some negative views lingering in Washington about resuming humanitarian assistance to North Korea at a time when denuclearization talks have not produced tangible results.
Multiple sanctions and the complex procedures needed to secure sanctions exemptions might be another reason behind the hold-ups.
"Humanitarian assistance is not subject to sanctions, but there are too many sanctions in place so that possibilities are high for their violation," said Woo Jung-yeop, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, a private think tank.
"Sanctions will likely be here to stay for a while even after the U.S. and North Korea meet and reach agreements (on nuclear issues)," he said. "Global sanctions are themselves strong but behind them are the U.S.' unilateral restrictions, which are maintaining the global sanctions regime. Things are interwoven in a quite complicated manner," he added.
Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, cautioned against reading too much into the hold-up in Tamiflu provision to the North, among other things, saying that it might be just a "happening," or a "very short-term" delay.
He said that inter-Korean exchanges, whether they be economic cooperation or humanitarian assistance, will hinge heavily on the results of a second summit the U.S. and North Korea recently agreed to hold in late February.
"After some kinds of deals between the North and the U.S., we could have an idea about how far we could go in inter-Korean exchanges," he said.
"If they reach an agreement (in their summit), things will shape up on what we can do and to what extent we can expand cross-border exchanges with the North," he added. "Until then we should work hard not to violate sanctions."
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