In a Cabinet-level meeting between North and South Korea this week, the first such formal talks in more than two years, the North agreed to send a delegation to the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games that the South will host in the city of Pyeongchang starting in February. They also agreed to hold talks between defense officials of the two governments. The meeting may have given the impression that tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang are easing, at least temporarily, but no progress was made on the issue of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — the biggest source of regional tension.
Pyongyang is clearly trying to undermine the concerted efforts of the international community to get the regime of Kim Jong Un to give up its nuclear and missile programs through tougher sanctions. The North is hoping to drive a wedge between South Korea, on one hand, and the United States and Japan, on the other, in the tripartite effort to corner Pyongyang into ending its military ambitions and provocations. The three countries need to keep up their close coordination as they deal with North Korea so that the North-South dialogue won’t be used as a cover for Pyongyang to fend off tightening pressure for its denuclearization or to buy time while it upgrades its nuclear arms and missile capabilities.
The proposal for holding Tuesday’s meeting was made by Seoul in response to overtures from Pyongyang. In his New Year’s Day speech, the North’s Kim indicated that he would consider sending a delegation to the Pyeongchang Games, saying his country’s “participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to show the unity of the people.” For Seoul, which wants to host a successful — and safe — Olympics, it was an enticing overture. In 1987, North Korean agents planted and detonated a bomb on a Korean Air jetliner, killing all 115 people on board, in what Seoul determined was a terrorist attack to sabotage the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Seoul may appear to have gained what it wanted through the meeting. But Pyongyang’s intentions must be scrutinized. Given that the international sanctions have severely restricted the North’s international trade and its means of earning foreign currency, Pyongyang clearly wants to loosen the encircling net against it by improving its relations with Seoul — and possibly to revive the economic cooperation with the South such as relaunching joint operations in the Kaesong industrial park, from which South Korea pulled out in February 2016. The agreement coming out of the meeting called for realizing reconciliation and unity of the Korean people by activating contacts, exchanges and cooperation in various fields — based on which the North may make various demands that the South may find hard to reject outright.
The two sides also agreed to hold further high-level talks. By keeping up the dialogue with Seoul, Pyongyang can use the talks as a shield against military pressure from the U.S.
In telephone talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly said the U.S. will not take military action against North Korea while the inter-Korean dialogue is continuing. They are also said to have concurred that the North-South talks could eventually lead to a dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.
South Korea should remember that the international community has been upgrading sanctions against North Korea to get Kim’s regime to abandon its nuclear and missile programs. The resumed dialogue between the two Koreas must be pursued in ways that will lead to denuclearization of the North. It is all the more necessary for Seoul to tune its policies closely with Washington and Tokyo so as not to leave room for Pyongyang to use the dialogue to its sole advantage.
The U.S. and South Korea have postponed large-scale joint military drills — originally scheduled to start in late February — until after the Pyeongchang Games, which will wrap up on March 18. North Korea must not be allowed to use this “Olympic truce” to further develop its weapons capabilities.
In his New Year’s address, Kim said his regime will focus on “mass producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment” in the coming year and that “the United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, and a nuclear button is always on my desk.” Though it is believed the North has not yet acquired the technology to guide missiles after re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, time may be running short for all parties to devise an effective strategy that will lead to the denuclearization of North Korea.