It remains to be seen how Pyongyang will respond to Seoul’s formal overture for dialogue.
Serious talks, whether on easing animosities along their tense border or on resuming the reunions of families separated by the Korean War in the early 1950s, as South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed on Monday, are long overdue given the antagonism that has escalated and accumulated over the years.
The worsening state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula has brooded a mood of pessimism, so the new South Korean leader’s professed willingness to engage Pyongyang offers some cause for optimism, albeit slight, since none of similar past overtures for dialogue, even handshakes, produced any meaningful headway in relations.
North Korea will be aware that Moon, while extending an olive branch, has never promised to adopt a carrot-only approach. On the contrary, he has openly stated Seoul will continue to apply pressure so that Pyongyang will rethink its pursuit of nuclear and missile capabilities.
Not to mention Tokyo and Washington, Seoul’s close allies, are calling for harsher sanctions. Immediately after Moon’s offer to talk, Tokyo argued “this is not a time for dialogue; it’s a time for pressure”.
Washington has also stated the conditions for dialogue are far from being satisfied, as White House spokesman Sean Spicer told a news briefing on Monday, “any type of conditions that would have to be met are clearly far away from where we are now”.
This should come as no surprise, considering the July 6 joint statement the US, Japanese and South Korean leaders signed on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, which committed the three to applying “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang.
Pyongyang may be angry at what it sees as threatening sabre-rattling by the United States, Japan and South Korea. But it should not take that as a reason for not responding or turning down the overture from the
South. Especially since the window of goodwill may not last forever.
In making the offer, Moon defied pressure both from opponents at home as well as from Washington and Tokyo. An unanswered overture will not only dissuade Moon personally, but also reinforce the case of Washington and Tokyo that his policy of engagement is ill-advised. In that case, Pyongyang will find its room for manoeuvre has substantially shrunk.
While the vicious circle of escalating tensions has allowed Pyongyang to continue with its nuclear weapons programme, the risks stemming from that endeavour have simultaneously grown.
Pyongyang’s best course of action now would be to embrace Moon’s offer, and get serious about his proposals, including that of cooperation on the 2018 Winter Olympics.