[News analysis] North Korea could look to add items to military talks agenda

Posted on : 2017-07-18 17:08 KST Modified on : 2017-07-18 17:08 KST
No response yet to Moon administration’s proposal, which is aimed at restoring inter-Korean dialogue
Photos of Korean divided family reunions behind a staff member at the Korean Red Cross in central Seoul
Photos of Korean divided family reunions behind a staff member at the Korean Red Cross in central Seoul

After the South Korean government simultaneously proposed military talks and Red Cross talks on July 17, North Korea is likely to be focusing on how to respond.

Seoul is expecting North Korea to respond in the affirmative. “If North Korea is sincere about seeking peace on the Korean Peninsula and the development of inter-Korean relations and respecting past inter-Korean agreements - including the July 4 Joint Statement, the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement, the June 15 Joint Statement and the Oct. 4 Summit Statement - then it must respond positively to our sincere proposal,” said Unification Minister Cho Myung-gyun. “We expect that the North will respond positively,” agreed Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk while he was proposing military talks on the same day.

Indeed, the mood in the Unification Ministry is one of cautious expectation that Pyongyang will concur with Seoul’s proposals, since North Korea‘s assessment of Moon’s “Berlin Declaration” was not wholly negative. Though North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper published a detailed rebuttal of the declaration on July 15, it also said “it’s at least fortunate that this contains a series of positions about respecting and promising to implement the June 15 Joint Statement and the Oct. 4 Statement, unlike Moon’s predecessors.”

But it’s too soon to jump to conclusions. North Korea basically has three options to choose from. First, it could reject the separate military talks and Red Cross talks proposed by Seoul and offer instead to hold a new series of talks with a comprehensive agenda. Recent actions suggest that North Korea is trying to test the Moon administration‘s intentions, at this time early in Moon’s presidency. North Korea must confirm whether Seoul really intends to improve inter-Korean relations and what the true intensions of the Berlin Declaration are before it can set a specific course for its future policy toward South Korea. Therefore, Pyongyang could take this opportunity to plan and propose a new framework of interaction or dialogue that it could use to assess the overall tenor of the Moon administration‘s North Korean policy. In Aug. 2015, North Korea proposed high-level talks between Kim Kwan-jin, head of South Korea’s National Security Office, and Hwang Pyong-so, chief of the North Korean military‘s general politburo, both of whom were fully capable of speaking for the leaders of the two sides.

North Korea could also respond separately to the proposals for military talks and for Red Cross talks. But even in this case, the North is likely to make counterproposals for its desired agenda rather than simply acquiescing to Seoul’s proposals. The South’s proposal for military talks is mostly focused on halting hostile activity at the military demarcation line. This basically means suspending the launch of balloons carrying propaganda pamphlets into North Korea and the broadcast of propaganda over loudspeakers along the military demarcation line, as well as preventing unplanned clashes. North Korea has also paid attention to these issues in the interest of protecting the “supreme dignity” of its leader Kim Jong-un. During the 7th Korea Workers’ Party Congress in May 2016, North Korea proposed inter-Korean military talks. “If talks were held between North and South Korean military officials, it would be possible to comprehensively deliberate and resolve issues of mutual interest, such as eliminating the risk of clashes around the military demarcation line and relaxing tensions,” the North said at the time. As a result, North Korea would not seem to have any reason to reject the South‘s proposal for military talks. But it’s also possible that North Korea will counter by calling for the suspension of South Korea-US joint military exercises to be included on the agenda of the talks, which has long been a North Korean objective.

When it comes to the proposal for Red Cross talks, North Korea is not likely to accept an agenda that only addresses the reunions of divided families. North Korea has called for the repatriation of the 12 waitresses from a North Korean restaurant in China who defected in Apr. 2016 and of Kim Ryon-hui, a defector who lives in South Korea and has expressed her desire to return to North Korea. In public responses to nine questions that were published by the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation on June 23, North Korea said that repatriating these individuals would be an “important touchstone demonstrating [South Korea’s] willingness to improve inter-Korean relations.” If the Red Cross talks are held, the North is likely to bring up these issues.

“There are sure to be points that both sides can raise, and we’ll start looking into the details after we see North Korea‘s response,” Cho said when asked about this issue. This could lead to a tiresome process of back-and-forth between Seoul and Pyongyang about setting the agendas for both the military talks and the Red Cross talks.

It’s also possible that North Korea will completely disregard the South’s proposals. The North could also carry out an additional missile launch or nuclear test without even responding to the proposal, which would further increase tensions on the Korean Peninsula and reinforce the narrative of a confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington from which Seoul is excluded. If such a provocation by North Korea were to coincide with the UN Security Council’s deliberations over sanctions for the North’s launch of the Hwasong-14, its first ICBM, this would likely deliver a major blow to the Moon administration, which is attempting to get the ball rolling on restoring inter-Korean relations early in Moon’s presidency.

By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer, and Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

 

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