North and South Korean delegates met yesterday for their first official discussions in two years. The meeting was to consider the upcoming North Korean participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, as well as the possibility of further diplomatic relations. Many hope that the talks will prove the first step in easing tension between the two states, and both sides have already made overtures that they would like to work towards a more peaceful atmosphere on the peninsula.
Senior officials of each state headed the meeting, indicating that the talks are being taken seriously by the North as well as the South. North Korea agreed there should be peace in the region after the South’s ROK (Republic of Korea) asked them to halt hostile acts that have stoked tensions in the area recently.
The two states have agreed to hold negotiations; however, North Korea has already bristled at the ROK’s suggestion of a denuclearization process. Analysts are speculating that the supposed olive branch may, in fact, be a plan to drive a wedge between the ROK and its American and Japanese allies.
THE NUCLEAR PROBLEM & TRUMP TACTICS
While the U.S. is still the only country to hold the dubious distinction of actually using a nuclear attack against another nation, it ceased testing in 1996. North Korea is now the only country in the world that continues to test such weapons, and there are no signs that these talks will lead to a scaling back of North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing programs. Rather, the North Korean delegate has rejected the ROK’s request for negotiations on the matter.
North Korea’s delegate chief and chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, Ri Son Gwon, insisted that the North’s nuclear program is not an issue between North and South Korea. “North Korea’s weapons are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren [South Korea], China or Russia.” He insisted that discussion of the matter would negatively affect inter-Korean talks.
Test launches reached a peak in 2016, perhaps due to uncertainty over a leadership change in the US, the first such transition since Kim Jong-Un achieved power in 2011, before “settling down” to around 20 tests in 2017, still the second most active year on record.
Trump called the talks “a good thing,” although he may not wish to give control of the situation over the ROK, adding that, “at the appropriate time, we’ll get involved.” He took credit for the reopening lines of dialogue between North Korea and the ROK last week, tweeting that his policy of “sanctions and ‘other’ pressures,” such as the threat of US nuclear might, had forced the North to reach out to the ROK:
Sanctions and “other” pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not – we will see!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
With all of the failed “experts” weighing in, does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total “might” against the North. Fools, but talks are a good thing!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2018
President Trump has taken a far more hard-line stance against North Korea compared to the Obama administration, whose appeasing policies had little success. Trump’s public trading of insults with Kim Jong-Un drew recriminations from some U.S. media outlets and foreign officials, such as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who said Trump was “playing with fire.” While many suspect that Trump’s tactics are aimed at weakening Un’s regime, the dictator has shown no signs that he would go willingly – although if the danger of nuclear escalation were to get out of hand, a military coup might force him out. Fears of such a coup may have been behind the series of purges that marked Un’s reign, even as recently as November.
So far, Un has used the nuclear program to assert his authority. North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing activity has increased about three-fold since Kim Jong-Un took over as dictator, implying that he relies more heavily on the program as a basis for his legitimacy than did his father and grandfather.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the North Koreans have dismissed nuclear discussions with the ROK, as President Trump’s confrontational style could prevent the notoriously stubborn dictatorship from toning down their nuclear program without “losing face” on the global stage – a move tantamount to admitting defeat.
A POWER PLAY BY KIM JONG-UN?
The probable reason for North Korea’s sudden friendliness toward the South is an economic difficulty as a result of sanctions. The ROK has already agreed to suspend some of them to allow the Olympic visit to occur, and the North is likely hoping for further negotiations. Friendlier inter-Korean relations may also cause the U.S. to relax its pressure on China, allowing the flow of trade between the Asian nations to resume. A U.S. ban on travel to North Korea since the death of Otto Warmbier in June has also dried up their tourism industry, and Kim Jong-Un recently hinted that he is hoping to boost South Korean tourism to the North.
So far, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has backed up Trump by saying he “deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks.”
However, the move could also be a plot by North Korea to divide and conquer, with some observers skeptical about Kim Jong-Un’s motives. In an interview with the Korea Times, Pacific Forum CSIS adjunct fellow Tara O said:
Kim is likely to try to find ways to drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. He is also likely to provide a list of demands, including for South Korea to provide cash, not implement sanctions, and halting or delaying the combined exercises with the U.S., none of which serves South Korea’s national interests.
Her sentiments were echoed by William Brown, adjunct professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service:
Clearly there is little cost to him and he can hope to drive a wedge between conservatives and liberals in South Korea and between Moon and Trump. If the move backfires, he can raise havoc and thus blame outsiders for his poor domestic economic conditions. We need to be ready for that.
With Pyongyang as unpredictable as ever, all involved are urging caution, with “slow and steady” being the clear message from South Korea following the meeting. As South Korea’s vice unification minister Chun Hae-sung says, “Starting is half the trip, but we can’t expect to be full with just the first spoonful.”