SEOUL – After weeks of soaring tensions over U.S.-South Korean war games that ended this week, North Korea has toned down its warlike rhetoric in what observers say is a sign that it may now be ready to talk.
Pyongyang had accused the United States of using the two-month joint exercises as a platform for a planned military strike, and reacted furiously to the use of nuclear-capable bombers in the drills. But after weeks of threats of missile strikes and nuclear war by the North, images of its leader, Kim Jong Un, inspecting troops have given way to pictures of his visits to sports events and a health complex with his wife.
“North Korea appears to be taking a breather after its brinkmanship reached fever pitch,” said Dongguk University professor Kim Yong Hyun.
He said Pyongyang could further shift its stance after an upcoming summit in Washington on May 7 between U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean leader Park Geun Hye, who took office in February.
“North Korea wants some gestures from Obama. Then it may try to open dialogue with the United States as it did before,” he said. But if it fails to achieve its goal, “the regime may go ahead with missile launches or another nuclear test,” Kim warned.
While Pyongyang has a history of saber-rattling followed by a cooling-off period in an effort to win concessions from the West, experts say Washington and Seoul may be losing patience.
“The South and the U.S. have become weary of the North’s pattern of threats followed by offers of dialogue, and this tactic has lost much of its momentum,” said Yun Duk Min, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.
“The United States will not start any talks with the North that would include the issue of recognition as a nuclear-armed state,” he said, referring to a key goal of Kim’s regime.
Experts say the barrage of apocalyptic threats in recent weeks from North Korea means that Obama will be reluctant to soften his stance against the rogue state.
“Obama can’t afford politically to make even slightly conciliatory gestures toward Pyongyang after the recent threats fueled anti-North Korean sentiment in the U.S.,” said analyst Paik Hak Soon of the Sejong Institute in Seoul. “But if the two leaders do not clearly lay out a coordinated policy stance on the North during their meeting, we will see the same cycle being repeated all over again.”