[News analysis] North Korea may prefer direct dialogue with the US to inter-Korean talks

Posted on : 2017-07-22 17:04 KST Modified on : 2017-07-22 17:04 KST
Recent ICBM launch could strengthen North Korea’s position in talks with Washington
Satellite imagery posted on July 20 on the North Korea affairs website 38 North of activity at Sinpo South Shipyard
Satellite imagery posted on July 20 on the North Korea affairs website 38 North of activity at Sinpo South Shipyard

North Korea gave no official response to the Moon Jae-in administration’s proposal for inter-Korean military talks on July 21.

This could mean even the Aug. 1 inter-Korean Red Cross talks proposed by Seoul for divided family reunions may also fall through. In a statement the same day, Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Moon Sang-kyun sent a message “urg[ing] the North to quickly agree to our proposal and come out [for talks].”

With its simultaneous proposal of military and Red Cross talks on July 17 as follow-up measures to President Moon Jae-in’s “Berlin vision,” the South Korean government emphasized North Korea’s wishes where they conflicted with the South’s. But the only response from Pyongyang to date has consisted of basic comments on inter-Korean relations in the Korean Workers’ Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun and other sources. Experts are giving two reasons to explain why the North Korean government hasn’t responded directly.

First, they are suggesting leader Kim Jong-un may not yet be “resolved” to improve inter-Korean relations. The conclusion is that while Kim is aware of the differences between the newly inaugurated Moon administration and those of predecessors Lee Myung-bak (2008-13) and Park Geun-hye (2013-16), he hasn’t reached the stage of certainty about what will be different and how. It’s the result of a more than nine-year vacuum erasing the trust built between South and North through their Joint Declaration of June 15, 2000, and Summit Declaration of Oct. 4, 2007.

Seoul also appears to courting Pyongyang’s distrust with its emphasis on cooperation with the US and North Korea’s denuclearization. Irrespective of Moon’s intentions, expressions such as “the right conditions” during the recent South Korea-US summit and “North Korean halting its provocations and showing a commitment to denuclearization” in the Berlin vision could be taken by the North as preconditions for inter-Korean dialogue.

Analysts also suggested the nature of the Kim regime may have played a part. While father Kim Jong-il had experience with two inter-Korean summits, Kim Jong-un has essentially no experience with inter-Korean dialogue since coming to power in Dec. 2011. This would mean the key advisors advising Kim on inter-Korean relations are unlikely to take any chances because of the responsibility they would bear for making the wrong choice. If true, this could also mean a long “reconnaissance engagement” before inter-Korean dialogue resumes.

Second, experts are suggesting North Korea hasn’t answered the South’s dialogue proposal because it is focused more on “basic issues” related to its regime’s stability, including military and security concerns, than on “internal issues for the Korean nation” such as restoring inter-Korean relations. Kim has advocated a two-track approach of achieving nuclear and economic development simultaneously. North Korea has proclaimed success with developing small, lightweight, standard nuclear warheads over the course of five nuclear tests and successfully launched the intercontinental ballistic missile-level (ICBM) Hwasong-14 on July 4. It may be prioritizing negotiations with the US over restoring inter-Korean relations now that it has maximized its bargaining strength with Washington.

Lending weight to this analysis is the stabilization of the North Korean economy. Last year alone, the UN Security Council passed two resolutions imposing tougher sanctions, yet North Korea’s external trade increased 4.7% from the year before. It could be that the potential gains in humanitarian aid and economic cooperation from mending ties with the South may not be all that big a draw to the North.

For now, Seoul plans to wait until the armistice signing anniversary on July 27, which it set as a date for a mutual halt on hostile activities around the Military Demarcation Line. A senior Ministry of National Defense official said on July 21 that the dialogue offer “basically stands until July 27.” A Ministry of Unification official similarly suggested there was “some possibility that North Korea could come back with a revised proposal to our proposal.”

A foreign affairs and national security expert who worked on Moon’s election camp noted that “both North Korea and the political situation around the Korean Peninsula have changed a lot in the nine or so years that inter-Koreans have been cut off.”

“Rather than sticking to the past approach emphasizing our good will, it’s time for us to come up with a ‘Moon Jae-in solution’ to win the North over that is suited to the new situation,” the expert said.

By Jung In-hwan and Kim Ji-eun, staff reporters

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

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