South Korea's government said for the first time Friday that it was considering lifting economic sanctions on North Korea that have frozen bilateral trade for more than three years.

"Seoul is carefully studying the matter, but public opinion is clearly divided," Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told lawmakers Friday about the hypothetical lifting of the sanctions the South imposed on the North in 2010 in retaliation for the sinking of a navy ship that left 46 South Korean sailors dead.

Pyongyang denies any responsibility for the March 26, 2010, sinking of the Cheonan, which occurred near the countries' maritime border in the Yellow Sea.

Ryoo said it was necessary to ease travel and investment restrictions to internationalize and bolster the competitiveness of the Kaesong industrial complex, the only remaining inter-Korean business venture.

A lawmaker for the main opposition Democratic Party, Jung Cheong-rae, urged the unification minister to lift the sanctions, saying they have caused South Korea economic losses totaling more than $8.8 billion.

President Park Geun-hye's administration, however, has thus far refused, saying North Korea must apologize first.

The two nations are still technically at war because the 1950-1953 Korean conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. EFE