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South Koreans tap former congressman to lobby for US sign-off on economic cooperation with Pyongyang

A South Korean business group that hopes to restart economic cooperation with North Korea has launched a Washington lobbying campaign spearheaded by a former Texas congressman.

New York-based global law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman has registered to lobby on behalf of South Korean companies that used to operate factories across the border in North Korea before the partnership was shut down five years ago. The engagement is for $675,000 and runs for 10 months, from July 15 until May 14, 2022.

Former Rep. Greg Laughlin

Former Rep. Greg Laughlin (bio), a senior counsel at the firm, is registered as a foreign agent on the account along with Pillsbury Partner Matthew Oresman, who heads the firm’s International Public Policy practice. A Democrat who switched to the Republican party in his last term, Laughlin served in the US House of Representatives from 1989 to 1997.

Laughlin is expected to provide “general advocacy, including meetings with U.S. Executive and Legislative Branches,” on behalf of the Corporate Association of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, or CAGIC. Pillsbury did not respond to a request for comment.

CAGIC’s South Korean consultant, HC & Sons, is due to be paid another $225,000 for its involvement in the effort.

The Gaeseong complex is an industrial park just across the border in North Korea that was opened in 2004 to promote ecomic cooperation between the two nations by giving South Korean companies access to cheap North Korean labor while Pyongyang reaped millions of dollars in foreign currency. North Korea shut the park down in 2016 after South Korea suspended operations following a long-range rocket launch by Pyongyang.

CAGIC has launched a full-court press to reopen the park, framing it as good for business and good for diplomacy.

The businesses at the complex “suffered tremendous losses since the complex’s closure five years ago and haven’t been able to recover from the losses since day-to-day survival is at risk,” CAGIC Chairman Lee Jae-cheol, who signed the contract with Pillsbury, said at a press conference in South Korea last month. “The governments of South and North Korea need to begin discussions immediately on how to reopen the Gaeseong Industrial Complex.”

The press conference was timed to mark the 21st anniversary of the June 15 South-North Joint Declaration of 2000 that called for economic cooperation between the two countries.

Reopening the park is also a priority for the South Korean government, which has been boosting its own US lobbying recently. President Moon Jae-in of the left-leaning Democratic Party of Korea, who came into power a year after Gaeseong’s closure, has long advocated for improving ties with North Korea, including reopening the complex and restarting inter-Korean tourism that ended in 2008.

For that to happen, however, the US would first have to agree to lift international sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program — a likely focus of the new lobbying campaign.

“I don’t think it’s possible for [United Nations] sanctions to be relaxed without US approval,” said Scott Snyder, the director of the program on US-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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Snyder said Gaeseong’s reopening made sense from Moon’s perspective.

“Its revival could facilitate improvement in the inter-Korean relationship, primarily because it would give North Korea a tangible benefit that might lead them to change their view on relations,” he said.

But the Joe Biden administration has to date not shown any interest in lifting sanctions absent progress on denuclearization talks, Snyder said.

“I think it would contradict the overall strategy approach that the Biden administration has laid out, which involves diplomacy and deterrence,” Snyder told Foreign Lobby Report. “I think the viewpoint of the Biden administration is likely to be that any sanctions relaxation measures related to North Korea should come in the context of a negotiation process, not in advance of a negotiation process. And the Biden administration’s efforts to engage in diplomacy with North Korea have [so far] been rebuffed.”

The push will also likely face skepticism on Capitol Hill, if past history is any indication. When a delegation of eight South Korean businessmen who used to operate in Gaeseong met with US lawmakers in June 2019 to make their case, they saw their hopes dashed.

“The most important thing … for the reopening of Gaeseong is a deal on the North Korean nuclear and missile program,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who chaired the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia at the time, reportedly told the delegation. “We have not achieved either one of those objectives, and until we do, it seems unlikely that Gaeseong will reopen.”

Further complicating the issue, some members of Congress have been vocally critical of a new South Korean law that bans sending leaflets and other anti-Pyongyang propaganda into North Korea, seeing it as an anti-democratic sop to Kim Jong-un‘s regime. Supporters of the measure say the law aims to prevent violent retaliation against South Korea.

On the other hand, the Gaeseong campaign could see support from the Democratic party’s liberal wing. Feminist activist Gloria Steinem and leaders of Women Cross the DMZ, a nonprofit that advocates on Capitol Hill for peace on the peninsula, attended a DMZ peace forum two years ago with the governor of the border province of Gyeonggi, Lee Jae-myung, a proponent of engagement with North Korea who is seen as a Democratic Party frontrunner in the Korean presidential election next March.

The State Department for its part declined to comment about the Biden administration’s stance on reopening Gaeseong. Meanwhile Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met today in Seoul with South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young, one of the South Korean government’s most outspoken advocates for reopening Gasesong.

In a readout of the meeting, the State Department said that the US and South Korean sides “reaffirmed that diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving complete denuclearization and to establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”