Inter-Korean talks: Is a corner about to be turned?

January 09, 2018 10:19
South Korean President Moon Jae-in had pushed the idea of reunification, but it remains an elusive goal because of political differences between the two sides. Photo: Reuters

High-level talks between North and South Korea this week offer a potential for diplomacy – not threats of war – to reduce the increasingly tense standoff between Washington and Pyongyang, amid the latter’s impressive success in developing its missiles and nuclear weaponry.

The United States has shown support for the North-South talks, whose immediate aim is to enable North Korea to participate in the Winter Olympic Games to be hosted by South Korea in Pyeongchang next month.

To allow this to happen, the US has agreed to the postponement of scheduled joint military exercises with South Korea until after the Games. North Korea, without saying so, will evidently not be testing any bombs or missiles during this period.

China is pleased that, in effect, its call for a suspension of US-South Korea military exercises in return for a suspension of North Korean tests is being put into effect, at least for the time being.

Now, the question is whether such a suspension-for-suspension deal can be extended beyond the Olympics and whether wider talks can then be held with North Korea involving other parties, particularly the US.

The focus in the initial North-South talks will be the winter games. However, a look at the composition of the two delegations makes it clear that both sides intend the talks to extend from sports into political realms.

The South Korean delegation is headed by Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, with all that his title implies, although the vice president of the Winter Olympics is also a member.

Similarly, the North Korean delegation is led by Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. Its members include a sports official and a member of the National Olympic Committee of North Korea.

So while the talks will focus initially on the Olympics, both sides are interested in steps toward greater reconciliation.

Talk of reunification has gone on sporadically for decades but it has been an elusive goal because of political differences. South Korea, for its own security, is allied with the US and North Korea, at least on paper, is China’s ally, reflecting the alignments in the 1950s when North Korea attempted unification by invading the South. American troops defended the South and Chinese troops supported the North.

Pyongyang is now seen as an international outlaw for its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its cruelty. Even Beijing has voted for Security Council sanctions on North Korea.

While North-South reunification is clearly impossible in the near term, the North is using this idea as a wedge to widen a rift between Seoul and Washington

In a New Year’s Day address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had excoriated South Korea for “siding with the United States in its hostile policy” towards North Korea and for having “further aggravated the mistrust and confrontation between the north and the south, and brought the bilateral relations to a fix that can hardly be resolved”.

Kim asserted that, given such an abnormal situation, “we can never escape the holocaust of a nuclear war forced by the outside forces, let alone achieve national reunification”.

In effect, he said that there would be a nuclear war unless South Korea ended its alliance with the US.

The idea of unification was pushed by Moon Jae-in last year during the campaign before he became South Korea’s president. However, after he assumed office, a series of North Korean nuclear and missile tests caused him to tighten relations with Washington.

Despite Kim’s bellicose words, his New Year address did create the circumstances necessary for talks on the Olympics.

Much depends on the role that North Korea wants to play. It can simply join as a participant, but Pyongyang is likely to demand a bigger role, possibly asking to co-host the games alongside South Korea and perhaps even ask that some of the events be held in North Korea.

South Korea, eager for an improvement in relations, is likely to go along with any demand within reason, although with the games scheduled to begin on Feb. 9, time is getting awfully short.

But if North Korea overreaches, for example, by asking for political symbols that in effect proclaim it as a nuclear power, then the South may have no choice but to say no.

The eyes of the world are on the Olympic talks. If agreement is reached, it could conceivably create opportunities for multilateral talks on the disposition of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

That is the nub of the issue and no number of appeals for inter-Korean unity will help North Korea.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.