It took longer than expected, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has finally played the most valuable card in his hand: offering talks with South Korea in an attempt to drive a wedge between Seoul and its ally, the United States, and a key diplomatic partner, Japan. The South Korean government of President Moon Jae-in seized the opportunity, suggesting a meeting next week, and promptly exchanged messages with Pyongyang via a hotline that had been dormant for almost two years. The opening should be explored, but Seoul must remain skeptical about Pyongyang’s intentions and ensure that any concessions are reciprocated and don’t undermine the goal of getting it to abandon its nuclear weapons.
Kim’s gambit was laid out in his New Year’s address. While boasting of his country’s growing nuclear capability — and the “nuclear button” on his desk that could launch missiles capable of hitting “the whole territory of the U.S.” — Kim also said that the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, which will be held next month in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, “will serve as a good occasion for demonstrating our nation’s prestige and we earnestly wish the Olympic Games a success.” He then offered to send a North Korean delegation to the games and said his government was prepared to negotiate ways to make that happen.
The Moon government welcomed the move, suggesting that talks to discuss participation in the Olympics commence next Tuesday in the truce village of Panmunjom. That receptivity is no surprise. Moon has sought talks with the North since taking office and there has been concern in Washington and Tokyo that Seoul would accommodate the North in ways that threatened the solidarity of the three countries and undermine the effort to get the North to denuclearize. Until now, Pyongyang has done nothing that would give Seoul reason to shift its position; that refusal to moderate its hard line has been more surprising than the North’s commitment to its nuclear weapons program.
Kim’s play is a shrewd one. Not only does the South Korean government want to resume dialogue with the North — high-level talks have been suspended since a December 2015 vice-ministerial meeting — but Seoul wants a successful Olympics and there has been growing concern that North Korea would disrupt the games. The presence of North Korean athletes and officials at the competition would be one of the best safeguards against any such act.
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon replied that his “government is open to talking with North Korea, regardless of time, location and form.” Moon himself was more measured: While urging his government to proceed as quickly as possible to get North Korea in the Winter Games, he added that any improvement in North-South relations “cannot go separately with resolving North Korea’s nuclear program.”
That caution is reassuring, but confusion persists. Cho said Seoul discussed the offer of talks with Washington; a U.S. State Department spokesperson was unaware of any conversations, adding that the U.S. is “very skeptical of Kim Jong Un’s sincerity in sitting down and having talks.”
The U.S. position reflects more than ill will. Kim’s New Year’s speech also called for accelerated production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, a readiness to counterattack with nuclear weapons and reunification of the Korean Peninsula. U.S. officials said there are signs that North Korea is preparing another missile test. President Donald Trump responded to Kim’s comment about his nuclear button by tweeting that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” He added that “Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not — we will see!”
Talks are valuable and agreeing to discuss issues is no concession. The key, as always, is what the parties will put on the table to reach an agreement. While there has been concern here that the Seoul government is too eager to deal with Pyongyang, a worry that predated the Moon administration, that fear has proven unfounded — thus far. Moon reportedly asked the U.S. to suspend military exercises before the Olympics as a way to lower tensions; the U.S. has not responded. Such a move seems reasonable in light of the traditional halt to conflict that accompanies Olympic Games; the exercises could be rescheduled without too much difficulty.
Whatever the conclusion, it is vitally important that Seoul, Washington and Tokyo be united in their thinking and integrated in their approach to Pyongyang. The only way that North Korea will abandon its nuclear weapons is if all three — along with China, Russia and other nations — present a united front.
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