North Korea has issued an appeal to “all Koreans at home and abroad,” urging them to “turn out as one” to make a “breakthrough” for “independent reunification” and urging the South to halt joint military exercises with the U.S. “forever,” state-run media said Thursday.
The announcement, which came after a joint meeting of the government and political parties, said all Koreans should “promote contact, travel, cooperation and exchange between the north and the south on a wide scale” to create a climate for “reconciliation and reunification.”
The appeal, which was aimed at supporting remarks on reunification in leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address, said this year was particularly meaningful for both Koreas as it is the 70th anniversary of the North’s founding and will see the South host the Pyeongchang Olympics from Feb. 9 to 25.
But the announcement — which comes amid easing tensions after the two Koreas agreed to cooperate closely on the upcoming Winter Olympics in the South — also denounced Seoul’s joint military drills with the U.S.
“The south Korean authorities should stop the war games with the U.S. forever and refrain from introducing the U.S. nuclear strategic assets and aggression forces to south Korea,” the official Korean Central News Agency said, quoting the announcement.
Koreans should “smash all sophisms and attempts to slander the nuclear treasured sword of the nation … and brand it as a hurdle in the way for the improvement of the north-south relations,” it added.
Pyongyang’s unusually strong appeal to Seoul for it to halt joint military drills with Washington — exercises that the North views as a rehearsal for invasion — could leave the administration of liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a bind.
Moon has walked a fine line by backing both the U.S. policy of heaping “maximum pressure” on North Korea while at the same time seeking engagement with it in hopes of building on breakthroughs such as the recent deal to cooperate on the Olympics.
On Wednesday, a high-ranking South Korean diplomatic official said that now is the “best time” for North Korea to hold a dialogue with the United States on its nuclear and missile programs, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.
The Moon administration said it would not oppose the bilateral talks, the official added.
“Now is the best time, as the U.S. opens its door for talks,” the unidentified official was quoted as saying. “The U.S. could close the door shut anytime. It is important for the North to stop provocations and come out for talks.”
Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow for Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, told a news briefing that Seoul could push for an indefinite postponement of its joint military exercises with the U.S. in exchange for North Korea taking steps to denuclearize.
The two allies had earlier agreed to suspend the annual drills for the duration of the Pyeongchang Games. Terry said Moon could seek to extend that suspension and bring the U.S. and North Korea together for negotiations on denuclearization.
South Korea wants “to make sure that this opening with North Korea over the Olympics leads to something and leads to perhaps U.S.-North Korea dialogue,” she said, according to a transcript of her remarks.
“So they’re going to try very hard,” she said. “And if they cannot give concessions on the sanctions front, they have to give something, because North Korea will demand it. So I’m a little bit concerned that the Moon government might actually push for the postponement of joint military exercises.”
Despite the apparent momentum for talks, experts have cast doubt that Pyongyang would seriously entertain discussions about denuclearization. They say it views its nuclear weapons as a lifeline and that without them, the Kim regime believes it would suffer the same fate as Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up a nascent nuclear weapons program for security assurances. Gadhafi was later killed in a U.S.-backed rebellion.
North Korea has continued to stoke global condemnation after conducting a spate of missile tests and its sixth nuclear blast last year. Those tests have prompted some of the most stringent United Nations and unilateral sanctions measure against the country to date.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula had soared to unprecedented heights in the wake of Pyongyang’s November claim that its nuclear program was “complete” after the successful launch of a long-range missile that experts believe is capable of striking the continental United States, though they have cooled with the recent Olympic rapprochement.
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