Inter-Korea talks: Will they lead to US negotiations with North?

January 15, 2018 11:50
South Korean President Moon Jae-in addresses the media during a New Year news conference at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul on January 10. Photo: Reuters

The global spotlight which has been focused on North Korea for much of 2017 has shifted slightly to South Korea, which has assumed an uncharacteristically key role under President Moon Jae-in.

The South Korean leader has successfully invited Pyongyang to take part in the Winter Olympic Games next month, giving rise to hope that the inter-Korean dialogue could lead to talks about denuclearization, and persuading President Donald Trump to postpone joint military exercises until after March 18, when the Paralympic Games end.

But Moon no doubt realizes that he has very limited room for maneuver. The meeting Jan. 9 to discuss North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang became possible because Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, proposed it and because the American leader cooperated by suspending scheduled American-South Korean military exercises.

Japan is the only major country that is openly skeptical about the North-South talks, voicing fears that they may negate international sanctions on Pyongyang. "There is no change in our stance of maximizing sanctions against North Korea for it to alter its policies," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said after the Olympics accord.

Japan's relationship with South Korea has been strained by Moon's review of a 2015 agreement on "comfort women", who were forced to serve in Japanese military brothels during the war. Moon’s government is asking Japan to "do more" even though both sides agreed in 2015 the accord was "final and irrevocable". Japan has refused to budge.

On talks with North Korea, Moon has kept Trump informed through phone calls. The American leader has, perhaps surprisingly, been supportive of the North-South talks and voiced hope that the dialogue "will lead to success for the world".

In fact, after a Moon-Trump phone conversation Jan. 10, Trump expressed interest in a US dialogue with North Korea, with the White House subsequently issuing a statement: “President Trump expressed his openness to holding talks between the United States and North Korea at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances."

However, while Moon is consulting with Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and others, so far it is the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who has been at the controls. It was Kim, not Moon, who controls the agenda of the dialogue.

Moon's policy is both rapprochement with North Korea and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, it is difficult to see how both can be achieved, especially when the North is adamantly opposed to denuclearization.

When South Korea proposed denuclearization as a discussion topic, it was strongly rebuffed. "This is not a matter between North and South Korea," said Ri Son Gwon, head of the North Korean delegation. "All our weapons, including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles, are only aimed at the United States, not our brothers, nor China nor Russia."

On Sunday (Jan. 14), North Korea's leading Communist party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, called in an editorial for the creation of "an atmosphere conducive to reunification". Clearly, that would mean, at the very least, the end of South Korean sanctions against North Korea.

It will be difficult for Moon to resist such calls, which sound reasonable on the surface, when he is officially seeking rapprochement and reduced tension. Japan correctly anticipated such a situation before it arose.

The current inter-Korean dialogue was only possible because the United States agreed to postpone military exercises, which North Korea has perceived as a threat to its existence.

North Korea has now called anew for the cancellation – not postponement – of such military exercises. Clearly, the suspension of such drills is a precondition to Washington-Pyongyang talks.

But while both Washington and Pyongyang want talks, each has its own goal. The US wants denuclearization to be the result of any talks while North Korea wants talks that confirm its status as a nuclear power. With such opposing goals, is there any point to talking?

The answer is yes. The only realistic option is for both sides to agree to unconditional talks and see if they can discover any common ground. This is a risk each side will have to take, and each will have to be prepared to have the other side walk out when all possible compromises have been exhausted. But it is difficult to see other alternatives.

The limits of the inter-Korean talks have been set by the North. South Korea can push on old issues, such as family reunification, but the key issue of denuclearization is off limits. There, Moon’s job is to steer North Korea into big-picture talks with the United States, despite their uncertain future. Much depends on the outcome of such efforts.

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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.